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Thomas Tallis

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Thomas Tallis (1505 - 1585) was an English composer during the Renaissance Period in music (1400 - 1600). He was a prolific composer of sacred music for both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches. His career spanned four monarchies: Henry VIII (with the dissolution of the monasteries), Edward VI, Mary (who re-established Catholicism) and Elizabeth I.

He began his career as organist at the Benedictine Priory at Dover, then moved to Waltham Abbey where he stayed until Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in 1540. He was then appointed organist at Canterbury Cathedral, and in 1543 was made Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, which position he retained until his death.

Thomas Tallis was fortunate in that he was in Queen Elizabeth's favour because he was a Catholic - like William Byrd, his pupil - during a period of religious unrest in English history, resulting in the state religion of England switching from Catholic to Protestant. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted Tallis and Byrd a monopoly in England on printing music. Toward the end of his life, Tallis lived in Greenwich, and when he died he left a substantial amount in his will.

Tallis' Music

Tallis was a master of polyphony - music with more than one melodic line sung simultaneously. One of the finest examples of this is the motet1Spem in Alium, written for 40 voices split into eight choirs of five. The first 20 voices all enter with exactly the same phrase, making what is known as imitative entries, before the next 20 voices enter with new material. All the parts come together finally in harmony. This piece produces a magical effect.

One of his minor tunes, the third of a set of nine written in 1567 for Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker's Psalter, and which, at the time, did not even receive the dignity of a separate name but which has since become known by its opening line, Why Fum'th in Fight, was used by Ralph Vaughan Williams as the theme in his Fantasia On A Theme by Thomas Tallis when he was compiling the English Hymnal. The Fantasia is one of the most beautiful and unusual pieces of music ever composed.

Tallis wrote many anthems, short religious choral pieces in English, and motets, similar to anthems but in Latin. A well known shorter anthem is If ye love me, keep my commandments. These days Tallis's anthems are often used in the Anglican service of Evensong.

Tallis lived at the time when printed music was just becoming possible, and as a result a very substantial body of work survives, notably many anthems for liturgical use (he was a pioneer of the anthem in England) but also separate works such as his Lamentations of Jeremiah. Tallis and Byrd held the sole license for the publication of ecclesiastical music.

Tallis inspired the following poem, technically a clerihew, by Terence 'Spike' Milligan:

Thomas Tallis
Bore no man any malice
Save an organist called Ken
Who played his music rather badly now and then.

- Spike Milligan
1A polyphonic choral piece, usually without accompaniment and usually based on a sacred text.

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