Considering that Thomas Tallis was the finest English composer of his generation, it is surprising how little we know about his life. The first time we hear of Tallis is in 1530 when he was organist at Dover Priory in Kent: by then he was clearly a respected professional musician. We also know that Tallis was described as being "very aged" in 1577 and that he died in November 1585. Taking these three pieces of information together, the consensus is that Tallis was born around 1505 (thus placing him in his mid-twenties while working at Dover, in his early-seventies when he was described as "very aged", and in his eightieth year when he died). Hardly conclusive, but there is not much else to go on.
The motet Salve intemerata is a setting of a long prose prayer to the Virgin Mary and is written for five voices in an expansively Catholic style. We know nothing of Tallis's whereabouts when he wrote this large-scale motet, but we do know that the oldest manuscript in which the motet survives was copied in the late 1520s and that the words are recorded in a Book of Hours which appeared in 1527. Yet in spite of its early date, Salve intemerata shows Tallis writing music of considerable fluency and invention, quite an achievement for a composer in his early twenties. With a composition portfolio that contained a work as substantial and proficient as this one, it is not difficult to see why Tallis was appointed to Dover Priory as a young man.
In 1535 Dover Priory was dissolved, and Tallis's job with it. By 1537 he was working at the church of St Mary-at-Hill in London. St Mary-at-Hill was an important musical foundation, and from there Tallis seems to have begun his association with the English royal court (in 1577 Tallis was described as "serving your royal ancestors for forty years"). It is at this time that the Missa Salve intemerata may have been written. The Mass borrows heavily from the motet, particularly in the Gloria and Credo, yet it shows that Tallis's style had matured in the intervening years. More concise, direct, and vocally more pragmatic than the lengthy motet, the Mass is his finest pre-Reformation achievement. The reason that the Missa Salve intemerata is not better known today is that one of the voice parts requires reconstruction (the Tenor part-book has been lost). Fortunately the missing part is the one directly above the lowest voice, the easiest one to reconstruct within this texture.
By 1538 Tallis was a senior member of the music staff at Waltham Abbey in Essex, but yet again Tallis's job dissolved along with the Abbey in 1540. Undeterred, he moved to the newly-founded secular establishment at Canterbury Cathedral, where he sang as part of the choir of twenty-two men and boys. The Reformation had a profound effect on English church music, most tangibly during the reign of Edward VI when late-medieval Latin polyphony, as exemplified by the Salve intemerata and its Mass, became outlawed. Tallis maintained his craft and his compositional voice, and provided the Church of England with largely homophonic music to English texts. He was, above all, a pragmatist, and he allowed the intimacy and directness of expression which this new style required to give another dimension to his compositional vision. Indeed, turbulent though this English liturgical revolution must have been to a lifelong Catholic, Tallis accepted the new musical order and learnt from it.
Some of Tallis's English-texted music was written in the Edwardine years of the Reformation, and the rest of it in Elizabethan England. I call and cry began life as an instrumental piece and only later did Tallis add words to it. Some time later it also became the Latin motet O sacrum convivium, yet the English word-setting is more fluid and convincing than the Latin version. Perhaps the reverse is true of With all our heart whose earliest text is clearly the Latin motet Salvator mundi. Most interesting of all is the "Armada" anthem, Discomfort them, which acquired these English words three years after Tallis's death. Having been conceived as the Latin motet Absterge Domine, the belligerent English text was hurriedly wrapped around the motet's scaffolding "on the occasion of the Spanish invasion in 1588".
Tallis served at court under four monarchs during his long life (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth) as singer, organist, choir trainer, and composer. His musical genius and his years of service at court were recognised in 1573 by the granting of a license which allowed him and his supposed pupil William Byrd to maintain a monopoly over the printing and publication of music and music paper for 21 years. This extraordinary royal favour seems to have followed hard on the heels of the finest musical achievement of his career, the composition of the forty-voice motet Spem in alium. In 1567 the Mantuan composer Alessandro Striggio came to London; he brought with him Ecce beatam lucem, a motet in forty parts. According to a recollection of 1611, a music-loving Duke (possibly the Duke of Norfolk) "asked whether none of our Englishmen could set as good a song". Consequently, "Tallis, being very skilful, was felt to try whether he would undertake the matter, which he did, and made one of forty parts which was sung in the Long Gallery at Arundel House". Arundel House, off London's Strand, belonged to Norfolk's father-in-law, the Earl of Arundel, who ran a strong musical establishment. Moreover the Earl of Arundel also had a country residence, Nonsuch Palace, which had an octagonal banqueting-hall. At Nonsuch Palace the octagonal hall would presumably have necessitated a performance of Spem in alium "in the round", the octagon accommodating eight choirs of five voices each. It is unlikely that early audiences were either aware that all forty voices enter together for the first time at the fortieth semibreve, or that the piece lasts 69 longs (in the Latin alphabet, where I and J are the same letter, T=19, A=1, L=11, L=11, I=9, S=18, so TALLIS = 69). But those fortunate listeners surely shared the most impressive aural experience of their lives, and the number symbolism is a mark of the fact that when Tallis attempted something that must have seemed impossible to the average musician of his day, he still had technique in reserve.
This recording of Spem in alium was made using "surround sound" (available on Naxos SACD 6.110111 and DVD-A 5.110111). The forty voices were arranged to form four sides of a huge St-Chad cross: Choirs 1 & 2 to the West, 3 & 4 to the North, 5 & 6 to the East, and 7 & 8 to the South. The recording was made to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Tallis's birth and the 21st birthday of Oxford Camerata's old members of Oxford Camerata met with their new counterparts for this performance of Tallis's masterpiece.
ReviewsI'm very happy to recommend this fine disc in its own right but as an anniversary celebration it's doubly welcome. Ad multos annos to both Oxford Camerata and Naxos! - John Quinn, MusicWeb International