In Good Company with Thomas Tallis

Rebecca Tavener takes a look at the music of Thomas Tallis.

Are you watching the BBC’s atmospheric dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall? If so, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that there’s been a rich and varied Tudor Season going on across the BBC to back it up. Apart from anything else, it offers an excellent crash-course on how the Reformation took hold in England and had a profound, long-lasting impact on the history of the entire British Isles. Those looking for Scottish references will already have noticed (Episode 1) that it was Katherine of Aragon who orchestrated the dreadful defeat of the Scots at Flodden in 1513, while Henry VIII was off on his ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ jolly, before religion had become a really big issue.

Did you also notice the theme music? It’s an instrumental version of a song by William Cornyshe (d1523), the most distinguished court composer of the early Tudor period and, unusually, a musician equally at home in the church. This song, Ah, Robyn is a great choice because of the line ‘tell me how thy leman doth and thou shalt know of mine’ - so ironic in the face of Henry VIII’s ‘problems’ with women.

Some brief information about his sacred music can be found on Wikipedia

Henry VIII was, like most renaissance princes, a notable musician and, even, a composer of his own lyrics and music. His most famous song is Pastime with Good Company, but some experts think that Cornyshe was guiding the royal pen.

But I want to talk mostly about the greatest British composer of the age - Thomas Tallis – a genius of sacred music from whom astonishing music poured, suitable for every aspect of this era of fear and faith. Even though his surname was once described to me by Dr Kenneth Elliott, one of Scotland’s foremost experts on the music of this period, as “a fine Lowland Scottish name” he was indisputably English - I’ve claimed a lot of music for Scotland in my time but this would be going way too far!

If you love orchestral music but have never got into Tallis, you probably already know one of his melodies from the stunningly lovely Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams (there’s a link later on). If you already know some of his wide-ranging choral music and you belong to a church choir, you’ll almost certainly have sung this:

So, who was Tallis? The first recorded reference to Tallis (c1505-85) appears c1530 in the accounts of the Benedictine priory of Dover, where he received an annual salary of £2 for the post of joculator organum (player of the organ). The priory was dissolved in 1535, and we next encounter him in London where he begins to appear in the accounts of St Mary-at-Hill in 1537. In 1538 he moved to Waltham Abbey where, once again, he went through the disruption of dissolution in 1540 – the last of the monastic foundations to be closed by order of Henry VIII. In 1541 he appears in Canterbury Cathedral as a lay clerk (a non-ordained professional singer), from whence in 1543 he moved once again to London to take up an appointment as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, beginning what would turn out to be around forty years of royal service. Tallis’s music reflects the religious pendulum that swung England violently through great and often tragic changes. Each of the four Tudor monarchs he served had a different view of what should be England’s ‘true faith’, so here’s a potted resumé:

Henry VIII: the driving force behind the Reformation, albeit for personal and political ends, created, largely through the efforts of Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury and inspired author of the Book of Common Prayer) the foundations of Anglicanism. English began to replace Latin. Tallis wrote lovely works in English for the new liturgies:

Edward VI (reigned 1547-53): had he lived to manhood may well have imposed a Calvinist, Presbyterian form of worship upon England under the zealous reforming influence of the Lord Protector, Somerset. How extraordinary to think that England and Scotland might have come to share the same church! The bounds of approved liturgical practice are narrowed and the use of the vernacular deemed essential.

For Presbyterians, psalms are, of course, the paramount music for the whole church to sing together. In England, as in Scotland, singable metrical psalms were wanted by the reformed church. Tallis was far from reluctant to provide them and he wrote nine settings for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (including Why fum’th in fight – the melody Vaughan Williams pays tribute to so magically in his Fantasia).

Mary I (reigned 1553-58): returned England to Roman Catholicism, earning the sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’ as she followed her mother’s Spanish brand of fanaticism, torturing and burning (Cranmer was one of her victims) her way back to ‘absolution’ for the nation. She took spectacular revenge for the appalling treatment of her mother, Katherine of Aragon, and proved herself an indomitable grandchild of Ferdinand and Isabella, under whose rule the Spanish Inquisition was founded and nurtured. Latin became, once again, the only language of the liturgy.

Tallis wrote extraordinary polyphony for the combined forces of the English and Spanish Chapel Royal choristers while Mary I was married to Philip II of Spain including this motet, Suscipe quaeso, believed to have been designed to express national penitence for turning Protestant!

Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603): whose pragmatic Protestantism preserved music and other church ‘trimmings’ whilst keeping hard-line Reformers from getting it all their own way. The Anglican (basically akin to Lutheran) approach to worship began to find its future form, largely because Elizabeth, the intellectual aesthete with a refined sense of the numinous, wouldn’t give up the things she appreciated in church. English reigned in the Book of Common Prayer, but Good Queen Bess enjoyed her polyphony in Latin. At this point, let’s remind ourselves that Latin was the language of scholarship, crossing all religious boundaries. The reason why Protestants wanted it excluded from the church was mostly a class issue so that the poor and uneducated might be enabled to understand scripture and the liturgy.

In 1575 Elizabeth accepted the dedication of the joint Tallis/Byrd production, the Cantiones Sacrae, probably for her private Latin service in the Chapel Royal, sending out an unmistakable message to detractors who wanted all classes of person to be denied beautiful liturgical trimmings in this form.

All this confusion allowed extremists of many persuasions to flourish in turn amidst the general paranoia. In spite of the long, seemingly settled, Elizabethan era, these festering undercurrents lead, after the accession of James I and a succession of increasingly ineffective Stuart monarchs, to the Gunpowder Plot (1605), the English Civil War (1640s) and much on-going misery with poisoned tentacles reaching even into the present day. Tallis managed to avoid being identified with the wrong faith at the wrong time, a fact which has led to speculation about his personal affiliations: was he a musical ‘Vicar of Bray’, turning his religious coat as the balance of power dictated? The evidence, in particular his links to various patrons and colleagues, seems to indicate that Tallis, like his great pupil, colleague and successor, William Byrd, remained a Roman Catholic all along.

Nowadays people are interested in personalities but Tallis, for all his enormous output of music and long and distinguished career, is a bit of a mystery as a man. Maybe that was his secret to staying alive, blending into the background. If you would like to hear one recording that covers most of his career but without surveying the more obvious and well-known works, there’s a fine new disc from one of Britain’s leading vocal groups, The Cardinall’s Musicke, called ‘Tallis: Ave, rosa sine spinis’ (Hyperion CDA68076) which I can heartily recommend.

Tallis remains a great inspiration for modern composers and here’s the link to the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan-Williams in a live performance from the Proms:

If organ music is your thing, I hope you’ll enjoy Master Tallis’s Testament by Herbert Howells:

Remember O nata lux from near to where we began? Well Scotland’s very own James MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn, one of his Strathclyde Motets, is a tribute to this favourite motet by Tallis:

If you would like to buy Cappella Nova’s CD Who are these Angels?, including O Radiant Dawn, at a special discount for readers of Different Voices, just email me, quoting ‘Tallis/MacMillan’, and I’ll tell you how you can get a copy for just £8. You can hear a snippet of our performance and see what else is on the disc on the Linn Records website.

Rebecca Tavener is Creative Director of Cappella Nova. Founded in 1982 Cappella Nova has built an unrivalled reputation as champions of Scotland’s unique treasury of early vocal music.