Despite his stature as one of the great composers of English sacred music, little is known about the personality of English composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505 - 1585). The last two lines of his epitaph - "As he did live, so also did he die, in mild and quiet sort (O happy man!); To God full oft for mercy did he cry, wherefore he lives, let death do what it can." - allude to a quiet, pious man, but little else.
Tallis' music, however, suggests much more. The composer lived in an England whose political and religious landscape was much more volatile than that of its 21st century counterpart. As monarchs changed - and Thomas Tallis saw four of them - so did the national faith. The pendulum swung from Catholic to Protestant to Catholic, and back to Protestant again. Both religions claimed numerous martyrs in defence of the "One True Faith;" kings and queens demanded different loyalties. And they also demanded liturgical music to fit the prevailing order of the day. Thus at least two conclusions can be drawn, reliably, about Tallis' personality from his work: first and most obvious, his creativity, and second, his adaptability. His output, for the most part, did not display the floridity of composers like Cornysh; nor did he compose much in the way of madrigals or other secular music; his music demonstrated more restraint than the exuberance of his pupil Byrd. Much of Tallis' work possesses a moody, reflective quality (for example, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Suscipe quaeso, Miserere), but occasionally he could demonstrate supreme technical skill. The best, and most well-known, example may be the 40-part Spem in alium, with its amazing tapestry of voices, but one can also point to pieces such as the giant six-voice antiphon Gaude gloriosa (probably written to honour Queen Mary Tudor) and some of Tallis' intricate keyboard pieces, most notably the two Felix namque settings, displaying a spirit of experimentation wildly at odds with the more reserved nature of much of his music.
As stated before, little is known about Thomas Tallis himself. His date of birth is murky, and at best music history scholars can narrow it down to "about 1505." Tallis' musical education as a youth is not known either, though he was probably a choirboy somewhere (it has been suggested he was probably one of the "children of the Chapel Royal," but there is nothing to confirm this), as that was how many composers in his day learned their music.
The first definite date marking the start of Tallis' musical career is 1532, when he was appointed organist of Benedictine Priory in Dover. The year 1537 found him at his second job, organist at St Mary-le-Hill in Billingsgate, London, and then on to Waltham Abbey in London until its dissolution in 1540 under Henry VIII. The unemployed Tallis then set out to find work, which he did in 1541 at Canterbury Cathedral as a lay clerk. Finally, he settled into the King's service, appointed as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543. He sang with the Chapel Royal, played the organ, helped in running the choir, and continued to compose. In 1575, with William Byrd, Tallis secured a monopoly on printing music and music paper in England. Tallis remained with the Chapel Royal until his death in 1585, while finding time to marry his wife Joan and taking on the young Byrd as a pupil (both probably around the same time, in 1552).
While Tallis was undoubtedly composing before he entered the Chapel Royal - Missa salve intemerata, for example, was written by the young composer in the late 1520s or early 1530s - it was this move into the King's service which marked the real beginning of a career which would establish him as England's main composer of church music.
Thomas Tallis would prove himself adept in writing for both the Catholic and Protestant liturgies. Born a Catholic, he managed to survive - apparently without being persecuted - as a member of the "Old Faith," while becoming the chief composer for the new Church of England. For the Catholic Church he set Latin texts to music in the form of vocal polyphony; for the new Anglican Church he provided clear chordal settings for English texts, many of which are still used by church choirs today (Tallis' Canon is perhaps the best-known example).
Though not as "in your face" about retaining his Catholic faith as Byrd was (Byrd was fined on several occasions for being a recusant), Tallis may have very well intended some of his pieces to make a point about the persecution of Catholics in a newly Protestant England. The haunting, expressive quality of his Lamentations of Jeremiah suggests desolation, penitence; the work, says Paul Doe, was more than likely not conceived as church music at all, "but rather for private recreational singing by loyal Catholics." For Tallis, the words "Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum" - Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God - may have had special significance for Tallis, a Catholic in a Protestant country.
One of Tallis' most famous compositions, the 40-voice Spem in alium, also alludes to a strong allegiance to Roman Catholicism, with its mix of voices both polyphonic and chordal. Spem is also a work with an interesting history in its own right. It was ostensibly the result of a challenge by one of the composer's supporters, the Catholic Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk (executed not long after as the result of trumped-up charges accusing Norfolk of colluding with Mary Queen of Scots). The work challenged was Striggio's 40-part Ecce beatum lautam; the challenge was for an Englishman to produce a work that would excel this piece produced by an Italian. Tallis answered the challenge, perhaps to defend England's creative honour; or to prove himself as an old man still capable of creating great work; or to produce - like many composers - a masterwork which history would remember him by. At any rate, Tallis set to work answering Howard's challenge. And answer it he did: Apparently after its first performance at the palace of Nonsuch (or the Long Hall), owned by Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel, Spem in alium moved Thomas Howard enough to remove a heavy gold chain from around his neck, placing it around Tallis' own, thanking the older Thomas for the glorious piece he had crafted.
Whether Tallis was a subversive Catholic, following one faith professionally but the other one in private, or merely demonstrating a love of the old liturgy he knew as a child, one may never know for certain, but it is clear that Thomas Tallis' music stands up not just for its creative merit, but as a reflection of one man's response to the tumultuous - and often treacherous - politics of Tudor England.