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Tallis 500 – the Legacy

Thomas Tallis, probably the earliest familiar English composer, was born in 1505. Until recently his name may have been more famous through the Vaughn Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis than in its own right, but increasing awareness of his music has firmly established him as a great master.

He lived a long life, reaching the rare, for his time, age of 80. Thus he lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of British history, one which saw four monarchs, the establishment, abandonment and re-establishment of the Anglican Church of England, the Spanish Armada and continuous religious persecution from both sides of the Anglican/Catholic divide. Although Tallis was one of the first composers to write music for the new Anglican rite, he remained a devout Catholic for his entire life.

It would seem very surprising on face value that an openly declared Catholic should have not only have avoided persecution, imprisonment or even execution under the reign of Queen Elizabeth l, but have even thrived. But this was indeed the case. Tallis, along with his pupil and fellow Catholic, William Byrd, were even awarded the monopoly on music printing, and were thus able to publish Latin texted music for the Catholic mass. Queen Elizabeth reputedly declared that he was no danger to the country for he was a “mere musician”!

We begin tonight’s programme with Videte Miraculum, a piece most probably written during the reign of Queen Mary, when the Catholic rite was temporarily restored and Tallis would have been free to practice his faith openly. The Lamentations, possibly his best known work, on the other hand must have been written for secret performance during protestant rule. The closing words of each of the 2 sets: "Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum" - Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God - shows Tallis at his most expressive….a yearning for a return to “the true faith”.

We are dividing the 2 sets of Lamentations with settings of psalms for the English protestant church. In 1567 Tallis composed 9 settings of psalms for Archbishop Parker's Psalter. Many will recognise the "Third Mode Melody" as the theme which inspired the composition of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910.

Tallis’s impact on English music was to extend way beyond his own compositions. In the music of his pupil and friend, William Byrd (1543 – 1623), many of Tallis’s distinctive characteristics continue to evolve. The two were on such terms that Byrd named his son Thomas and asked Tallis to be godfather. As mentioned earlier, Byrd was also a Catholic, and was in fact fined several times for recusancy (attending illegal Catholic masses). Despite that, he enjoyed the same protection from more severe persecution as his fellow “mere musician”, and like him achieved great success.

In 1575 Tallis and Byrd jointly published the Cantiones Sacrae with music from both composers including Diliges Dominum. In 1591 Byrd produced a further collection of Cantiones Sacrae from which Infelix ego is taken. Infelix ego is a clear example of Byrd’s frequently risky declaration of his feelings about being a Catholic in a protestant land. The text, a meditation on psalm 50 was composed by the Florentine Savonarola, a fiery priest who castigated the nobility of Florence for their greed and dissolution – and who instigated the bonfire of the vanities, encouraging people to burn their luxurious possessions. Eventually he was condemned to death and wrote the poem on the eve of his execution. It is not hard to see the significance of the words for Byrd, where all of the world is a source of despair, and hope lies only in the mercy of his god. Diliges Dominum in contrast is a somewhat academic piece based on a “crab” canon which works backwards in the second part.

So moved was Byrd by the death of his friend and master, that he wrote a moving elegy on his death ending with the words: “Tallis is dead and music dies.”

Fortunately this was far from true for Byrd was to continue in his steps writing music for both the Latin and English rite, including settings of the mass Propers for the entire Catholic church year (the Gradualia) openly published thanks to his monopoly on printing! This says as much for Queen Elizabeth’s continuing tolerance of Catholics (so long as they stayed out of trouble), as it does for Byrd’s audacity. Although much of Byrd’s sacred music does reflect his negative feelings about the English church, the cheerful Laudibus in sanctis, based on psalm 150 shows his other side: the writer of intricate rhythms, madrigalian word painting and a sparkling sense of humour as he seems intent on tripping up the unwary performer!

Tristitia et anxietas returns to the dark world of penitence – yet never losing a sense of hope and a yearning for comfort brought out in masterful phrasing and melodic contour so typical of his great teacher.

The viol was so loved by Byrd, that even his a cappella music sits well on the instrument, but he also wrote a number of works for performance specifically for solo voice and consort of viols, such as Ye sacred Muses, and also verse anthems for choir, soloists and viols. Christ Rising comes from his 1589 “Songs of sundry natures”, a mix of English texted music both secular and devotional – clearly designed for domestic use rather than as part of a church service.

Tallis’s heritage was continued in the music of Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), the pupil of Byrd, and prolific writer of English sacred music, as well as madrigals, consort and keyboard music. Although he lived well into the 17th century, his style is still essentially polyphonic and owes more to past traditions than to the new baroque treble and bass dominated techniques from Italy. He shares with Byrd and Tallis a masterful handling of rich harmonic textures and expressive use of dissonance, but above all the ability to write beautifully crafted phrases that ebb and flow with the meaning of the texts.

In all three lifetimes we have covered over 150 years. It was a period of intense artistic achievement in England. Yet from the late medieval style that characterises the early works of Tallis to the early baroque of Tomkins, and beyond into the works of Henry Purcell it is possible to trace a definite pathway; one that owed so much to the genius of Thomas Tallis.

©Deborah Roberts April 2005