Thomas Tallis

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Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585), English composer and organist, has the rare distinction of having served four monarchs in an official capacity. As a young man he wrote polyphonic works in the traditional catholic style for Henry VIII, before changing to accommodate Archbishop Cranmer’s insistence on a clear syllabic style reflecting new “Anglican” emphases during the short reign of Edward VI (and seen in its literary guise in the Book of Common Prayer.) The sudden (and brutal) reversion to catholic orthodoxy under Mary I saw Tallis write some of his grandest and most elaborate music, once more in a traditional style.

Whilst Elizabeth I was politically protestant her private sympathies for many things catholic allowed Tallis and his younger colleague William Byrd to write and even publish, in the catholic tradition. His most notable works: the two “Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet” and the 40-part motet “Spem in alium” are indicative of this.

Tallis' works are almost all sacred but he also wrote a small amount of consort and keyboard music. These days he is mainly known as the writer of a melody that was used by Ralph Vaughan Williams as the basis for the "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis", first performed in 1910, which has become one of the most loved shorter pieces of music in the repertoire.


“Oxford Companion to British History”