Thomas Tallis

c.1505–1585

Renaissance

The English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis wrote music for kings and queens. After working at Waltham Abbey in Essex and Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, he went to the Chapel Royal in 1543 and spent 42 years serving four different monarchs.

Tallis was a Catholic. At this time in England, people disagreed about religion. The arguments were fierce and people were sometimes put to death for their beliefs. Things kept changing depending on who was in charge, so Tallis had to be careful.

Henry VIII started the English Reformation, making the Church of England separate from Catholic Rome and the Pope. Under his son Edward VI, England became firmly Protestant. That meant no complicated Latin in church anymore: instead, English words that everyone could understand. But six years later, Mary I took over and was a bit of a monster: she wanted England to be Catholic again and had many people killed to help things along. Luckily her successor, Elizabeth I, was less aggressive. She was a Protestant, and made a sort of compromise – called ‘the settlement’. But the Church of England was separate from Rome again, with Elizabeth in charge of it.

These changes were important for composers writing church music. Tallis had to satisfy each different monarch, and he did it. For Protestant Edward VI, he wrote clear, ‘homophonic’ music (like hymns); for Catholic Mary I, he wrote grand, decorative, ‘polyphonic’ music (where separate lines of music overlap each other to make a lovely maze of sound); and for the more tolerant Elizabeth I, he composed a mixture of the two.

Elizabeth was so impressed with Tallis. She enjoyed his polyphonic music – like Spem in alium in 40 parts. She gave to Tallis and his pupil William Byrd special permission to print and publish their music. They were the only ones allowed to do it!

Tallis was a master. His music is always interesting and moving. He was about 80 years old when he died peacefully at his house in Greenwich in 1585.

Thomas Tallis, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Try these Thomas Tallis tracks…

Loquebantur variis linguis

A piece that would have been sung as part of a church service at Pentecost. After the solo voice at the beginning, you can hear the different voices all singing their own lines, which weave in and out of each other. It is quite lively for Tallis!

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550576

Mass for Four Voices: Sanctus

Tallis’s Mass for Four Voices (meaning four parts) is less florid than some of his other music: the parts sometimes come together and move at the same time, instead of all doing their own thing. This is the ‘Sanctus’.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550576

Salvator mundi

This is a setting in five parts of ‘Salvator Mundi’ (‘Saviour of the World’) – for the service of Matins on the Catholic Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. It communicates the words clearly with a strong religious sense.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.556842

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Tallis worked closely with another English composer. Who was he?

a. Ralph Vaughan Williams
b. John Blow
c. William Byrd

 Tallis and Byrd were given special permission to print music in England by whom?

a. Henry VIII
b. Elizabeth I
c. James I

 Tallis amazed people with his piece in 40 separate parts. What is it called?

a. Spem in alium
b. Miserere
c. Laetatus sum

 Who was the first of the four monarchs Tallis served?

a. Edward VI
b. Queen Mary
c. Henry VIII

 Tallis was faithful to which religion?

a. Roman Catholicism
b. Protestantism
c. Buddhism


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Vaughan Williams loved the music of Tallis: his popular Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is based on one of Tallis’s hymn tunes.
  2. Tallis remained a Catholic all his life but was quiet about it during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I.
  3. We’re not sure that Tallis really looks like his portrait, which was actually painted 150 years after he died.
  4. Tallis was married in 1552. He and his wife, Joan, had no children.
  5. Most of the music we know by Tallis is polyphonic, with many lines being sung at once and usually in Latin, but he wrote several English hymns too, such as If Ye Love Me.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Sung in Latin


Spem in alium

In 1567 an Italian composer called Alessandro Striggio came to London, and he brought a motet (a choral piece) in not just four parts, or even eight parts… but 40 parts! That is 40 separate musical lines being sung at the same time. A duke wondered whether an English composer could do something that impressive, so the 70-year-old Tallis stepped up – and did something better. He didn’t just write 40 parts of music as if it was an exercise: he wrote one of the most extraordinary, beautiful pieces of Renaissance music ever. It is hard to show in a recording how Spem in alium sounds live, when you have all 40 singers (divided into eight ‘choirs’ or groups) singing different things all around you. It begins so simply: just one part (usually one singer) sings ‘Spem’; then the next part comes in. Gradually they all enter and criss-cross each other in a glorious web of sound. At 9.20, something amazing happens: a second of silence! Then all 40 parts come in with ‘Respice’ (‘Regard’), and there is again a melting gentleness to the music for these words, ‘Regard our humility’. And just listen from c. 11.00 to enjoy at 11.18 a fantastic ‘false relation’ (where you get notes that don’t belong in the harmony making a kind of ‘crunch’). Polyphony never got more awesome than this!

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.557770


Loquebantur variis linguis

This type of piece is called a ‘responsory’. Tallis uses an old chant melody – a melody that would have been around since medieval times – as the root of his piece. The melody, called a ‘cantus firmus’, is sung in long notes and is buried in the busy music. You hear a single voice start things off, then for a while the music is ‘polyphonic’: that means each line of music has a melody of its own and they all happen at the same time, so the lines weave in and out of each other like spaghetti. In between these sections are ‘verses’: these are ‘monophonic’, which means there is just one single line of music, even if several voices are singing it. You can hear this at 1.47. The words of the title carry on to mean ‘The apostles spoke in different tongues – alleluia – of the great works of God – alleluia…’ It is one of Tallis’s more lively pieces, and it would have been sung as part of a church service at Pentecost.

Performers: Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550576


Lamentations (first set)

Tallis wrote two sets of ‘Lamentations’: the text comes from the Old Testament book ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah’. Lamentations were traditionally used during Holy Week in the Roman Catholic Church – in a service at night-time. Tallis writes music that has this feeling of darkness. The writing is clear, sombre and expressive, fitting the bleak thoughts of the Prophet Jeremiah as he ‘laments’ (grieves over) the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians. They were composed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Although she was a Protestant not a Roman Catholic, she loved Latin and allowed it to be sung at her private services. The harmony is quite adventurous, and includes ‘false relations’! A bit like members of the family who don’t fit in, these are notes that suddenly and briefly clash with the others, and then there is peace again. It makes the music crunchy and colourful, and it was a speciality of English composers at the time. Listen at 0.35 for one of these! There is quite a lot of ‘imitation’ too: one part will sing something, and then another part will copy it: at 3.50, for example, after the long note starts at the top, voices come in with ‘Beth’, copying each other.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.556842


Lamentations (second set)

This is the second set of ‘Lamentations’ that Tallis wrote: they use a different verse of the Lamentations text from his first set, and have the same intense, expressive feeling. These are words that cry about awful destruction, and the music seems to cry too. Queen Elizabeth I, a Protestant, made it a rule for English to be used in church services – but she liked Latin and allowed it to be used in private services. She also preferred music to be more ‘homophonic’ – like hymns, where the voice parts change notes at the same time as each other, and you can clearly hear the words – but she allowed Tallis (and Byrd) to continue writing in a ‘polyphonic’ style sometimes. So the music sounds all swimmy as the voices swirl around with their own parts, coming together at certain points and then swimming away again.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.556842


Mass for Four Voices

Tallis’s setting of the Mass was probably written when Henry VIII was still King of England, and his Archbishop of Canterbury was Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer was all for the Church of England being completely separate from Rome and the Pope. While Henry was still alive, there were many arguments about what should happen, and it was only when Edward VI took over that things really moved on. Cranmer then put together The Book of Common Prayer for the English Church – in English, of course, not in Latin! But Tallis wrote his Mass just before this: it was clear that the King and the Archbishop wanted clear music and clear words rather than a lot of floaty, flowery musical lines – but it wasn’t a strict rule yet. So the Mass Tallis wrote is just a bit flowery! You can hear the voice parts moving separately sometimes, and moving together at other times. Always, though, there is a beautiful, flowing sense of direction to the music.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553239


Audivi vocem

You can clearly hear the voices all come in separately with ‘Audivi’ at the beginning of this gentle music composed for Advent. The piece is based on an old chant melody, which was something composers did a lot in the Renaissance era. In the middle of the polyphonic writing, where the voices all sing their own separate lines at the same time, is a section of ‘monophonic’ chant: one line sung by all voices. It comes back right at the end of the piece, too.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550576

Sung in English or Played on Instruments


I call and cry to thee

This piece was only for instruments to start with. Tallis added words later. They fit very well though: the voices sound exactly like they are ‘calling and crying’, asking for God’s forgiveness.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.557770


Discomfort them, O Lord

This music was actually in Latin to start with, and it was given English words in 1588, three years after Tallis’s death: this was the year that the Spanish Armada set sail to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. Spain was a Catholic country and wanted England to go back to being Catholic too. So this music used to have the Latin words ‘Absterge Domine delicta mea quae inscienter…’ (meaning ‘O Lord, wipe away my transgressions’) and ended up with ‘Discomfort them O Lord’: the new words are all about strength, which is what England needed! But the notes are exactly the same as Tallis wrote them.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.557770


A Solfing Song

Viols are early string instruments – they were around before the violins and cellos that we know today. In Tallis’s time, there would be ‘consorts’ of viols: groups that would play together. They can be quite expressive, surging in and out of phrases to produce a lovely shape to the music. Can you hear any ‘false relations’ (the occasional crunch in the music from a note that doesn’t really belong there)? English composers at this time were experts in false relations. There is one at 0.34. See if you can spot any others!

Performers: Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.554284


In Nomine

This is another piece for a viol consort – a group of viols. Tallis wasn’t the only composer to write a piece called ‘In Nomine’: a lot of composers around that time wrote them. They took the same plainsong or plainchant melody – a melody that had been around since medieval times – and spun a piece around it. The instruments seem woven together: their sound is the same, and their musical lines are like fish swimming around in the same pond.

Performers: Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.554284

Tallis in the Twentieth Century


Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

This is not by Tallis! It was written in 1910 by the English composer Vaughan Williams – but the whole piece is based on a hymn that Tallis had composed 350 years earlier. So the sound of the music is completely different: times have changed. There is a big orchestra of string instruments making a rich, warm sound. Vaughan Williams loved the Renaissance music of England. This is one of his most popular works.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.555867