Thomas Tallis

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Born: ca. or 1514 1505 — Leicestershire — England
Died: 23 November 1585 — Greenwich — England
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Life

(contributed by Terry Tallis (sic!) <ttallis(at)peak.org>)

Thomas Tallis was an English organist and composer whose career spanned the reigns of four monarchs and a long period of religious change. He was organist of Dover Priory in 1532 but moved to London (Saint Mary-at-Hill) and then to Waltham Abbey, where the excellent choir and acoustics probably inspired him to compose his early Latin motets--Ave Dei Patris, Gaude gloriosa, and Salve intemerata--in the expansive and melismatic style then in favor. On the dissolution of the abbey, Tallis went to Canterbury for two years as a lay clerk at the cathedral but soon took up an appointment at the Chapel Royal, where he remained until his death. It was there that he met, taught, and befriended William Byrd, whose elegy "Ye sacred Muses" laments the death of his old and revered master.

Tallis was indeed a master, not of one but of many styles, including the rich texture in the vein of Robert Fayrfax, the newer post-Reformation counterpoint exemplified in the motets and hymns in the Cantiones sacrae published jointly with Byrd in 1575, and the simpler, more homophonic style of the anthems written for the publications of John Day and Archbishop Parker. As an unrivaled example of a contrapuntal tour de force, Tallis’s motet Spem in alium (for eight choirs of five voices) stands alone; it may have been written for some great ceremonial event at which the assembly of 40 highly trained voices would not be unusual. Many of his Latin motets were adapted to English words, sometimes more than once; Absterge Domine, for instance, was sung to the tune of "Discomfit them" or "Wipe away my sins." As a virtuoso organist and virginalist, Tallis left a small but remarkable collection of antiphons and hymn verses that also included two massive settings of the offertory Felix namque.

(Denis Stevens Bibliography: Doe, Paul, Thomas Tallis, 2d ed. (1976).)


Tallis; was born about 1510. It is likely that his birth was four or five years earlier. For in 1577 where Tallis; and Byrd petitioned Queen Elizabeth for a grand of a lease, Tallis; described himself as "verie aged", and expression that he was at least 70 at the time; and it is not unreasonable to assume from this that he would have been about eighty at the time of his death in 1585.

Born in the opening years of the 16th century he bridges the gap between Fayrfax and the late Elizabetheans, a period of tremendous musical change. The name of Tallis, or Tallys, or Talles is uncommon. Robert Talles or Tallys, died in 1571 and was buried at Islington parish church. He had relatives living in Leicester and Clement Tallis, who matriculated at Christ Church Oxford, in 1581 as "of co. Leic", seems to be the son of his brother Clement. The name is found at Burton Overy in 1669, when Henry Tallis ;left a legacy to the poor of that parish. No connection between these families and the composure’s can be proved on the known facts, yet they suggest that Thomas Tallis; may have been a native of Leicestershire.

The earliest known fact about him is that he held an official position, persumably musical, at the Abby of the Holy Cross at Waltham in Essex. His name appears a long list of some 70 persons who received small sums in reward for their services when they were deprived of their offices at the dissolution of Waltham Abbey in 1540. Tallis received a larger reward", or as a gratuity. It was assumed that Tallis was the master of choristers or organist.

From this dissolutionment there was a document that came into Tallis’ possession that was written in the hand of John Wylde former precentor of Waltham Abbey and contains a number of treastises on musical subjects. Of interest however is the fact that Thomas Tallis ;signed the document. It now resides in the British Museum.

On leaving Waltham Abbey, Tallis went to Canterbury as a lay clerk. He was appointed as one of the gentlemen of the Royal Court about the year 1542. He must have been known by King Henry VIII as the Kind was a frequent visitor to Canterbury.

At the funeral of Henry VIII and the coronation of Edward VI Tallis’ name stands 16th out of 20 of those who recived liveries on those occasions. In 1557 Tallis and Bowyer jointly were granted by Queen Mary a lease for 21 years of the manor of Minister in the isle of Thanet. He also received a gratuity of 40 pounds during the first year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

On Jan. 22, 1575 Tallis and Byrd were granted an exculsive licence by letters-patent which gave them the sole right for printing sheet music and msuci paper in England.

In 1575 Tallis and Byrd published a set of their monets. The only other works Tallis published in his lifetime were five anthems set to English words included by John Day in his "Certaine Notes".

The closing years of Tallis’s life seemed to have been spent at Greenwich, were he owned a house. He was married in 1552, the date being calculated by his epitaphm. He had no children according to this source. The surname of his wife was not known. but her Christian hame was Joan. She survived him. Tallis died at Greenwich on Nov. 25 1585 and was buried in the parish church of St. Alphege, just outside the chancel rails. The church has been torn down and Tallis’s tombstone has dissappeared. It was reproduced on a memorial tablet placed in the rebuilt church in 1935 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of his death.

The will of Tallis was dated Aug. 20 1585 and proved on Nov. 29, of the same year. Joan, his widow was the sole executrix; William Byrd and Richard Cranwell, also of the Chapel Royal and intimate friends of Tallis, were his "overseers". The will provides clues to his family history by listing a cousing in Thanet named John Sayer. Mrs. Tallis died in 1589 and was buried in her husband’s grave. There are many compositions that Tallis wrote. They are listed in separate publications.


Tallis, Thomas, page 294 (#2)

English composer and organist. The date of his birth is not known, but it is a matter of some consequence to attempt to discover it approximately because it also determines relatively the date at which he began to compose. And at a period of rapid musical development this becomes a considerable factor in comparing his his style with that of his contemporaries throughout a long life. In this connection is it well to remember that Tallis was very probably writing some of his most important music while holding the responsible position of organist of the Abbey of the Holy Cros at Waltham; and if we are right in putting his birth as early as about 1505, for reasons which will be stated presently, his earliest work would have been contemporary with that of Taverner, whose death took place five years after the dissolution of Waltham Abbey, and Tallis may have been at Waltham before Taverner left Christ Church.

Davey in the D.N.B. conjectures that Tallis was born about 1510. It is likely that his birth was four of five years ealier... (same info. as above article)

There is no evidence to support the conjectures that Tallis was one of the "children" of the Chapel Royal or that the was under Thomas Mulliner at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The earliest known fact about him is that he held an official position, presumably musical, at the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham in Essex. His name is not included in the list of those who received pensions on the dissolution of Waltham Abbey in 1540, but it appears in a long list of some 70 persons who recieved small sums in reward for sevices when they were deprived of their offices. This list is appended to an inventory of the goods belonging to the abbey dated 24 March, 31 Hen. VIII. Tallis received a larger sum than any one else in the list, namely 20’s. for wages and 20s. "in reward", or as a gratuity. Another item of interest in the same list shows that five "children" in the church, evidently choristers, jointly received 20s. for wages and 20s in reward. The names in this long list also, no doubt, include the singing-men. From these details it may fairly be assumed that Tallis was master of the choristers or organist. The inventory shows that there was "a lytell payre of organes" valed as xxs. in the Lady Chapel and that in the choir was "a great larg payre or organs" and also "a lesser payr". No organ is mentioned in the inventory as being "in the church."

A very interesting manuscript belonging to Waltham Abbey seems to have passed into the possession of Tallis at the tiem of the dissolution. It is now in the British Museum. It was written in the hand of John Wylde, formerly precentor of Waltham Abbey, and contains a number of treatises on music subjects. It chief interest to-day lies in the fact that Tallis wrote his name upon the last page, and this autograph is here reproduced.

The name was written again on the same page in large block letters, and this may also be in the composer’s hand, but it is more than doubtful whether the succeeding notes, refering to certain books - possibly choir-books were written by Tallis.

On leaving Waltham Abbey in 1540 Tallis went first to Canterbury, for his name is found as that of a lay-clerk of the cathedral in a recently discovered list of all persons connected with the Foundation in 1541. He had left Canterbury before 1543. He may have become known to Henry VII before the dissolution of the abbey, for the king was a frequent visitor there. His appointment as one of the gentlemen of the Chapel Royal must have been made about the year 1542. In a petition made jointly with Byrd in 1577 he stated that he had served "these fortie yeres", referring, without doubt, to his position in the Chapel Royal. His name appears in several lists of the "gentlemen of the chapel". In one list, for example, given in connection with the accounts of the king’s household, his name stands sixteenth out of thirty-two; this list is undated, but was about the year 1545; the rate of stipend was L1 per diem between the thirty-two men. Tallis does not appear to have been organist of the chapel at this time; Richard Bowyer was Master of the Chilren. At the funeral of Henry VIII and the coronation of Edward VI Tallis’s name stands sixteenth out of twenty of those who received liveries on those occasions. In 1557 Tallis and Bowyer jointly were granted by Queen Mary a lease for 21 years of the Manor of Minister in the isle of Thanct. It may be wondered whether the proximity of this monor to Canterbury can be associated in any way with the fact that he formerly resided in the neighbourhood. That Tallis should have been under the patronage of Queen Mary at this date is also an interesting subject for consideration. In the first year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign the Royal Household Accounts show that he received a sum of L40, presumably as a gratuity.

On 22 Jan. 1575 Tallis and Byrd were granted a licence by letters-patent which gave them the sole right for printing music and music paper in England. This was intended as a royal boon which should have been lucrative, and so it proved to be at a later date; but in the first wo years it resulted in loss, and the two composers presented a petition to the queen asking her to compensate them by granting them a lese for twenty-one years of the annual value of L30. They pleaded that Tallis is now verie aged and hath servd yo mattie and yo Royall ancestors these fortie yeres and hadd as yet never anie manner of preferment except onely one lease...which being now the best pite of his lyvinge is wth in one yere of expiration.

They further stated that the printing-licence had brought a loss of 200 marks. Byrd pleaded that his daily attendance in the royal service had interfered with his teaching and that his encome had diminshed since he left Lincoln Cathedral. The lease was granted.

Tallis and Byrd were acting as joing organists of the Chapel Royal at this time, and were so described on the title-page of the set of their motlets which they published in 1575. This was entitled

Contiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, quinque et sex partium autoribus Thoma Tallisio & Guilielmo Birdo Anglisi Serenissimae Regineae Majestati a priuato Sacello generosis & Organistis.

It was dedicated to the queen and contained 16 numbers by Tallis and 18 by Byrd. In a rather unusually large amount of prefatory matter two poems were included in praise of the two composers written in Latin elegiaes, one by Richard Mulcaster and the other by Ferdinand Richardson. In this latter poem is the much-quoted line "Tallisius magno dignus honore senex".

The only other works by Tallis published in his lifetime were five anthems set to English words included by John Day in his "Certaine Notes" (1560-65)

The closing years of Tallis’s life seem to have been spent at Greenwich, where he owned a house. He was married in 1552, the date being calculated from his epitaph; he had no children. The surname of his wife is not known, but her Christian name was Joan. She survived him. Tallis died at Greenwich on 23 Nov. 1585 and was buried in the parish church of St. Alphege, just inside the chancel rails and near the grave of his colleague Richard Bowyer. A brass plate was placed on his tombstone; the inscription on this plate was fortunately recorded by Strype in his "Continuation of Stowe’s Survey of London", for shortly after this the church was pulled down and rebuilt and the tombstone of Tallis disappeared. The inscription may been in "Tudor Chruch Music" (Vol. VI); it was reproduced on a memorial tablet placed in the church in 1935 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of his death. Hawkins in his History (III, 266) says that Dean Aldrich repaired Tallis’s gravestone.

The will of Tallis (P.C.C. 52 Brudenell) was dated 20 Aug. 1585 and proved on 29 Nov. of the same year. Joan, his widow, was sole exuctrix; William Byrd and Richard Cranwell, also of the Chapel Royal and the inimate friends of Tallis, were his "overseers". Byrd was one of the witnesses. The will provides no clue to his family history except that he had a cousin in Thanet named John Sayer. He left his share of the printing-licence to his godson Thomas Byrd, the composer’s son.

Mrs. Tallis died in 1589 and was buried in her husband’s grave. Her will (P.C.C. 54 Leicester) is chiefly interesting as containing a very full list of furniture and other personal property.

It may be assumed that in the early part of his career, while at Waltham Abbey, Tallis confined himself exclusively to the composition of music for the Latin rites of the church. There is no means of dating any of his music with any degree of certainty, but it seems likely that the motet "Gaude gloriosa" belongs to the Waltham period; it includes prolonged phrases, sometimes split up by rests, set to single syllables of the words; a good illustration of this hocket style of writing is to be found at the word "glorificat" at the end of the "Gaude Virgo" section of this motet. "Ave Rosa" and Ave Dei Patris" contain similar passages, and for other reasons also these may be assigned to the earlier period of Tallis’s work. The five-part Mass and the Lamentations are far more concise in treatment, but the four-part Magnificat is another work that may be early. The four-part Mass looks like a very early work; only one source of text is known and this seems to be faulty, but judged by this text the counterpoint in some places seems feeble and unsatisfactory if it really represents the composer’s work. The motets by Tallis published in the "Cantiones sacrae" of 1575 show a marked advance in style compared with the work of the pre-Elisabethan composers. In this collection Tallis exhibited those qualities which have made his name so famous; and some of these same motets, for instance the "Miserere nostri", and constructed with that marvellous cantrapuntal skill in which both he and Byrd were supreme.

In contrast to these elaborate pieces are such beautiful and simple works as "O nata lux" and "Procul recedant", which were printed in the same set. These are little more than hymn-tunes, quite regular in melodic outline and for the most part homophonic in treatment. There are several further examples of this character by Tallis, notably those surviving in the Mulliner manuscript.

The motet "Spem in alium" is written for 8 choirs, each of 5 voices. Tudway mentions "the original MS" as being extant in his time. The earliest text known is now (1948) in the library of Gresham College. This manuscript dates before 1612; the text is English, and the 40 voice-parts are complete. Hawkins wrongly states that the English version was made in the time of Charles I or II.

Tallis had been called "the Father of English Cathedral music". He was among the first composers who wrote music to English words for use with the English rites of the church. It must have been very soon after the publication of "The Booke of Common Praier noted", in which Marbeck had provided a standard version of the plainsong for the English Preces, Responses and Litany, that Tallis, as Hawkins describes it, "added three parts" to the plainsong, making a version in four-part harmony, and Hawkins was probably referring here to Tallis’s four-part setting.

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6 September 1910: Premiere of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, in Gloucester, England.

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[details ←] If Ye Love Me (SATB), organ, , choral, vocal,
[details ←] 9 Psalm Tunes, recorder,
[details ←] The Tallis Canon, choral, vocal,
[details ←] Tallis Canon & Variations
[details ←] In Jejunio et Fletu, choral, vocal,
[details ←] Salvator mundi (II), choral, vocal,
[details ←] Candidi facti sunt, choral, vocal,
[details ←] Call to Remembrance/Verify I Say Unto You, piano, organ, vocal, , choral, vocal,
[details ←] A Joyous Psalm, concert band,
[details ←] Spem In Alium Nunquam Habui
[details ←] Tallis Anthology, choral, vocal,
[details ←] If Ye Love Me Keep My Commandments A Cappella, choral, vocal,
[details ←] If Ye Love Me, choral, vocal,
[details ←] 3 Motets, horn, trombone, brass quintet, trumpet, tuba, french horn,
[details ←] If Ye Love Me, choral, vocal,
[details ←] If Ye Love Me, choral, vocal,
[details ←] 16 Cantiones Sacrae - Vol. I (In Manus Tuas and others), choral, vocal,
[details ←] Lamentations Of Jeremiah
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