Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)

English organist and composer 

Before being appointed gentleman of the Royal Chapel (Gentleman of the Chapel Royal), Tallis was for eight years (1536-1540) organist of the Abbey of the Holy Cross in Waltham in Essex, until its dissolution by Henry VIII, then organist at Canterbury Cathedral (1541-1542) where Henry VIII noticed it.

For over forty years, from 1543 until his death, Tallis held the organ in the royal chapel. During this period, he will play and compose religious music for the four successive sovereigns on the throne of England: the kings Henry VIII and Edward VI, the queens Marie Tudor and Elisabeth Ire, of religions and different musical sensitivity.

Tallis' early compositions are steeped in Catholic tradition. Tallis will always remain faithful to the Catholic faith, even after the emergence of Anglicanism. However, he settled his music on the Anglican reform and created numerous hymns and hymns adapted to the Protestant liturgy. Thus he succeeded in varying his compositions according to the different religions which alternated in England according to the sovereigns.

In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I gave him the exclusive privilege for twenty-one years, to print and publish music, jointly with William Byrd who joined him in the royal chapel. Byrd published in 1575 a collection of thirty-six pieces by Cantiones Sacræ, sixteen of which were from Tallis. This unwelcome book marks the end of sacred music in England with texts in Latin.

Tallis wrote his most elaborate works on Latin texts. He also composes in French, Italian and English. Tallis' work includes masses, motets, hymns, responses, magnificat and lamentations. His most famous motet, Spem in alium (In No Other Is My Hope), composed for forty independent voices (eight choirs with five voices) demonstrates his great skill and his perfect mastery of the technique of counterpoint. Legend has it that this masterpiece was composed for the 40th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I.

Composed in a period of trouble between Anglicans and Catholics, at the end of the 1560s, The Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah sung in Latin by a five-voice choir are the work of a composer who, arriving at the top of his art, sublimates the musical practices of his time: the golden age of English music.

Thomas Tallis died in Greenwich on November 25, 1585. The epitaph and tombstone have disappeared, the parish church where he rested having been demolished in the 18th century. Since then, a plaque has been placed in the reconstructed church. 

© Didier Chagnas


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