If ye love me, keep my commandments,
and I will pray the Father,
and he shall give you another comforter,
that he may 'bide with you forever,
e'en the spirit of truth. (John 14:15-17)

Thomas Tallis, like his younger contemporary William Byrd, was a survivor. He was a singer, organist, and composer during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Tallis endured the religious changes of the Tudor Dynasty, from Henry’s semi-Catholicism-without-the-Pope, through Edward VI’s Calvinist iconoclasm, Mary’s restoration, and Elizabeth’s new Church of England. Sometimes we think of the liturgical changes we have seen in the past 50 or so years; they pale in comparison to the shifts of Tudor England’s worship and musical styles.

Tallis was born near the end of Henry VII’s reign and music historians presume that he was a choirboy when growing up. Tallis did not compose much secular music, like madrigals, but concentrated on liturgical music. We know that he was employed in 1532 as an organist at the Benedictine priory of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Martin of the New Work, or Newark in Dover; in 1537 he started to play the organ at St. Mary-le-Hill in Billingsgate, London and that he also worked at Waltham Abbey, an Augustinian monastery, in London. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, Tallis lost his job in 1540 and had to find new employment.

In 1541, Tallis began to sing at Canterbury Cathedral as a lay clerk. He was not ordained but was paid as a professional singer. He then joined the Chapel Royal of Henry VIII as a Gentleman in 1543, where he sang, played the organ, composed music for Court religious services, and took on pupils, including William Byrd. He married in 1552; his wife’s name was Joan. There is no record of them having any children.


Musical Styles Change

For Henry VIII, Tallis composed polyphonic music set to Latin liturgical texts. When Henry died in 1547, his young son Edward—for whose birth Henry had broken away from the Pope and the universal Catholic Church—came to the throne. Because he was so young, Councils and Protectors administered his government, especially his uncle Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset (executed in 1549) and then John Dudley. Thomas Cranmer, his Archbishop of Canterbury, compiled The Book of Common Prayer, the Catholic Mass was abolished, and religious services were mandated in English.

Church music was affected, as the musical settings were mandated to be brief and clear, with the instruction “to each syllable a plain and distinct note.” Tallis was willing to change his style, although he never changed his religion, remaining a Catholic through Edward VI’s reign (1547–1553) and then in Elizabeth I’s reign, starting in 1558 until his death in 1585. During Mary I’s reign (1553–1558), Catholicism was restored and Tallis went back to composing English polyphonic music with Latin liturgical texts.

“If Ye Love Me” is a motet composed during the reign of Edward VI. Each syllable has one note, and the four parts—Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass— sing the first words together (“If ye love me, keep my commandments”). Then each voice enters separately for the rest of the verses from St. John’s Gospel (“and I will pray the Father . . . e'en the spirit of truth”), creating a complex, though clear, interweaving of the voices. Tallis also repeats the last part of the verse: “that he may 'bide with you forever, e'en the spirit of truth.” This video, with the sheet music, makes this vividly clear.

The schola at my parish sang this motet during the Offertory on Oct. 1; even though it is in English, the intertwining of the parts means you have to listen to it attentively to hear all the words. Picking one of the voices to follow through the piece helps. Although Tallis was complying with the mandate to give “each syllable a plain and distinct note,” he still demonstrated his creativity in setting the words to music.


Musical Styles Change Again

With the death of Edward VI and the failure of Northumberland’s efforts to place his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey on the throne, Mary I restored Catholicism in England and Tallis continued to compose music for the Chapel Royal. He composed a Mass for Christmas Day, Puer Natus Est Nobis (To Us a Boy is Born) in 1554, for example, which might have also celebrated Mary I’s hopes for the birth of her own son (which proved to be false).

When Mary died, Elizabeth’s reign brought in new directives for liturgical music: Latin was out again—except in the Royal chapel and in Oxford and Cambridge, where the educated could be expected to know the texts—and simplicity was back in again. Tallis composed works for the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker’s 1567 Psalter. One of those tunes, for Psalm 2 (“Why fumeth in fight”) inspired Ralph Vaughn Williams’ 1910 composition, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

His most incredible composition is Spem in alium, a motet for 40 (forty!) voices, composed in response to Ecce beatam lucem by the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio. Thomas Howard, the Fourth Duke of Norfolk, challenged Tallis to compose a greater work than Striggio’s after the Italian visited England. Howard was very pleased with Tallis’s effort and gave him a gold chain after its first performance.

Tallis’s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah was also composed during Elizabeth I’s reign to be sung on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week in the Chapel Royal. He and William Byrd had received a 21-year monopoly on polyphonic music composition rights in England in 1575. Tallis and Byrd were materially comfortable but Byrd, who survived into the reign of James I, seems to have been more distressed with the status of Catholics in England. Tallis might have been more careful in the practice of his faith, while Byrd associated with Jesuit missionary priests and was often fined for recusancy (not attending Church of England services).

When Thomas Tallis died on Nov. 20 or 23, 1585, William Byrd wrote a mournful elegy for his teacher, “Ye Sacred Muses” with the last line, “Tallis is dead, and Music dies.”