Thomas Tallis: Music & Life


During the spring semester of 1999 through the following summer I completed my senior research project on the music of Thomas Tallis. The following contains the two introductory paragraphs and excerpts from the paper. If you have any questions, head to the The music echoes through the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England. The flames of candles flicker causing the shadows of the singers to sway as they sing the anthem If ye love me composed by Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585). The emotions rise and fall with each phrase of text while the singers evoke a message of peace and comfort. One can definitely observe that a great deal of work has gone into understanding the words, the style, and the objectives of the music being performed in such an inspiring way. However, performing choral music of the Renaissance Period, in this case the music of Thomas Tallis, is often done without consideration of how, when, why and where the music was written. Because of these factors the performance can lack focus, expression and understanding. In order to improve the overall performance of a piece, whether as a conductor or performer, one must consider Tallis’s life, his style of writing, the general musical styles of the sixteenth century, and the possible significance of his music.

By examining these concepts, the performance will be enhanced. This study will include a brief look at major historical occurrences of the Renaissance which contributed to changes in the church, and the philosophies of composers, in this case Thomas Tallis. Then, a brief biographical overview will be presented. General style developments in music of the Renaissance as well as Tallis’s compositional style will then be examined. Numerical symbolism will be considered as well to bring about the understanding of Tallis’s music. Finally, the performance practices of the period will be studied.

Following Henry VIII was his son, Edward VI. He ruled from 1547 through 1553. Protestantism became the dominant religion (Parker 21), so anyone who was Catholic was most likely deemed a heretic and then killed. Therefore, the composers had to consider cautiously what text and beliefs were portrayed in their music. During Edward VI's Protestant regime, a vernacular liturgy was developed (Doe Tallis 50). A requisition was given on April 15, 1548, regarding the music of the newly established English liturgy. It states, "The choir shall henceforth sing or say no anthems of our Lady or other Saints, but only of our Lord, and them not in Latin; but choosing out the best and most sounding to Christian religion they shall turn the same into English, setting thereunto a plain and distinct note for every syllable one: they shall sing them and none other" (Atlas 545). The order greatly affected the composers and performers during Edward VI's reign. This change of liturgy caused the composer to consider the listener as well as the performer in writing the music. A group of composers, including Tallis, actually anticipated the change and "the demand for a new and simpler music for worship" (Jacobs 58). Because of this shift, the anthem was developed as a major form of church music. The English language had now become the dominant form for the liturgy and music. But, Protestantism was not to last.

Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII took the throne in 1553 and ruled until 1558 (Parker 21). The Catholic rite was restored, thus causing more changes for composers to confront. The only real change was the use of Latin music. Composers could now set Latin texts without the fear of heresy.

Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England in 1558. She governed until 1603 (Milson 151). She brought the Protestant rite back to the fore front of the English church. Again, this change in religious faith caused the composers to strongly consider the listener, performer and the ruler in their music.

Thomas Tallis had a very complete and fruitful life. A great many things occurred during his life which definitely affected his frame of mind as he worked and composed. He was most likely born in Kent, England, in 1505. Tallis grew up in the traditions of the English church as a choirboy (Milson 38). His first recorded position was at the Benedictine Priory of Dover. Tallis took a post as a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral from 1541 through 1542. Around the same time of his employment at Canterbury Cathedral, Tallis began his work with the Chapel Royal as a Gentleman of the Chapel (Doe "Thomas Tallis" 542). The duty of a Gentleman was to sing and compose for the monarch's private services (Doe Tallis 7).

Developments in the style of music which span each specific era of the Renaissance period do exist. Voice styles emerged through the century that not only affect the performance minded, but also how a composer wrote pieces of music.

The voicing and melody of Tallis's music played a prominent role in how he composed. He operated on the principle of "one entry per voice," which also influenced his use of the cantus firmus, giving Tallis the only possible option of using imitation to develop the cantus firmus (Milson English Polyphonic Style in Transition 132-133). As far as the melody is concerned, he preferred to put the melody in the highest voice with slight ornamentation, which follows one of the overall style developments of the Renaissance (Stevens 42).

Imitation was a fundamental structural parameter used by Tallis, especially in writing anthems. The use of imitation during this period is best seen in the works Hear the voyce and prayer, and If ye love me. One characteristic of Hear the voyce and prayer (Click on the title to see and hear a YouTube example) is the opening point of imitation in which an "ascending leap of a diminished fourth dominates" (Reese 799).

If ye love me (Click on the title to see and hear a YouTube example) is similar to Hear the voyce and prayer with the exception that it begins chordaly and breaks into imitation.

Anthems dominated the English church music of the mid-centuries of Tallis's development. But the Latin-texted music, typically motets, was brought back into use during the Marian era. Tallis's motets and other Latin music continued to evolve in the Elizabethan era. The motets examined in this part of the study are Miserere nostri, O nata lux de lumine, and Spem in alium. Imitation had then become the dominant figure in Tallis's style.

Symbolism also heightens the performers' understanding of the composer and his music. Tallis's music, especially O nata lux de lumine, Miserere nostri, and Spem in alium, embody a significant amount of symbolism. The first basic symbolism is observed in the relationship between text and music.

Not only did the composers seriously consider the symbolism of the texts, but they placed numbers under even deeper regard. The number "seven" is the first dominant symbolic number. "Seven" is often referred to as a Marian, referring to Mary the mother of Jesus, number. The reason for this designation is because of the seven joys and sorrows of Mary. The number "seven" also stands for completion, plenitude, and completeness (Elders 99).

As Tallis wrote Spem in alium he utilized the symbolism of three other numbers. The first number is "eight." The concept of regeneration is often connected with the number "eight." Regeneration means "the re-birth into new life through baptism as the foundation set by Christianity" (Elders 102). The Biblical base is found in 1 Peter 3:20-21. ". . .when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and the water symbolizes baptism . . ." (The Holy Bible 859).

Understanding such concepts as the symbolism of Tallis's music and knowing more about his life and style enhance the performance of a work such as Spem in alium and his other compositions. Another consideration is basic performance practices of the sixteenth century. The number of singers in the ensemble is the first issue. The large abbeys and cathedrals and only a few collegiate churches such as Eton or King's College Cambridge maintained choirs of fifteen to forty voices. The smaller establishments typically had sixteen, which was the accepted body of singers for most sacred music (Stevens 14). The consideration of an ensemble's size and purpose was certainly a component of the composer's thought process when writing. Thus, when planning to perform music from the Renaissance one must consider the intentions of the composer.

A final performance factor was the type of singer that prevailed during this century. Male voices dominated the cathedral and church choirs throughout England. Because the male voice dominated sacred music, the tone color heard and considered by composers was darker (Steven 46). Thus, when performing Tallis's music this tone color, typical of the sixteenth century, should be taken into account.

With all of the concepts studied and understood, imagine how much greater a performance of Thomas Tallis's music would be. By completely grasping the historical significance of changes that occurred throughout the Renaissance as well as developments of music during the sixteenth century and of Tallis's own style, a performer now has the knowledge necessary to add focus to a performance. If Tallis was able to adapt to the changes, especially such principal and dramatic modifications, it is up to the conductor through the ensemble to convey these meanings to the listener. Symbolism conveys an entirely new dimension to performing and learning about Tallis's music. Comprehending the types of sounds and forces used during the period is invariably vital in presenting music from the Renaissance. Tallis certainly knew what he desired to convey through his music. When the conductor and ensemble are knowledgeable, the effect Tallis sought in his music will be cherished and expressed by everyone involved. The mission of every choral performer is to open doors to the past and to the emotions of the world. Milson offers a challenge to anyone performing Tallis's music: "Listen to Tallis's works, if you will, merely as glorious music. But if you think of them additionally as mirrors held up to Tudor England, you will surely come closer to understanding not only the music but also Tallis the man" (Milson "Thomas Tallis" 41).

Works Cited

Atlas, Allan W. Renaissance Music, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998, 545.

Doe, Paul. Tallis, London: Oxford University Press, 1968, 50.

Doe, Paul. "Thomas Tallis," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, vol. 18 London: MacMillan Publishers Limited, 1980, 541.

Elders, Willem. Symbolic Scores: Studies in the Music of the Renaissance, New York: E.J. Brill 1994, 111.

The Holy Bible: New International Version, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984, 859.

Jacobs, Arthur, ed. Choral Music: A Symposium, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963, 57.

Milson, John Ross. English Polyphonic Style in Transition: A Study of the Sacred Music of Thomas Tallis, Oxford: Magdalen College 1983, 151.

Milson, John, ed. A Tallis Anthology: 17 Anthems and Motets, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, 25.

Milson, John. "Thomas Tallis," BBC Music Magazine, no. 10 vol. 6 (1998) 38.

Parker, Michael St. John. Britain's Kings & Queens, Great Britain: Pitkins Guides Ltd., 1997, 18.

Parrish, Carl. A Treasury of Early Music, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1958, 135.

Reese, Gustave. Music in the Renaissance, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1959, 799.

Stevens, Denis. Tudor Church Music, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1966, 43.