Composer Spotlight Lent I: Thomas Tallis

February 11, 2016 Comments Off on Composer Spotlight Lent I: Thomas Tallis

The choral music scheduled at St. Luke’s for the First Sunday in Lent (February 14th) will be:

  • The Great Litany in Procession
  • Cristóbal de Morales – Missa Mille regretz (Kyrie)
  • Cristóbal de Morales – Inter vestibulum et altare
  • Thomas Tallis – Absterge Domine

We will be using this space in Lent to highlight a composer from the upcoming Sunday’s schedule of choral music. This week’s composer spotlight is Thomas Tallis.

-Blog Editor


‘Tallis is dead, and music dies’: the conclusion of the lament on Tallis’s death set by William Byrd, his devoted pupil. Music died not simply because Tallis was perhaps the greatest English composer of his generation. He was a man of rare integrity, who had weathered the shifting religious and musical currents of the Reformation period and was a living link with the old, settled Catholic orthodoxy which that period had toppled. By the end of his long life he had become a kind of father-figure to church musicians, and his passing seemed to mark the end of an age, like the passing of an Elizabeth or a Victoria.

Tallis was born in about 1505, and we hear of him first in 1532 as organist of Dover Priory. Thereafter he served at St Mary-at-Hill in London, Waltham Abbey in Essex, and Canterbury Cathedral, before being appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in about 1543, a post that he held until his death in 1585. His life encompassed the reigns of four monarchs, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, a time of unparalleled change in both the style and the function of English church music. Composers gradually abandoned the extended and brilliantly florid but emotionally detached style of the early Tudor period, and, towards the and of Henry’s reign, they adopted in its place features that had been established earlier on the Continent such as the use of imitation as a structural rather than a merely decorative device, homophony (chordal writing) and a more subjective and expressive response to texts. (These differences can be clearly heard between the earlier Videte miraculum and the later O nata lux and Absterge Domine.)

Early in Tallis’s career, the Votive Antiphon, an extended composition often with a devotional text in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was the major musical form outside the Eucharist or mass.  With its decline in Henry’s later years, a new kind of composition began to take its place as. Responds, or Responsories, were sung to plainchant as part of the daily Office. Formally, they are all built round the alternation of sections chanted by soloist(s) and by full choir. The main section, the Respond proper, is begun by soloists and continued by full choir: the soloists then sing a Verse, and the choir responds with a shortened repeat of what it sang before; in the more important examples, the soloists then sing the first half of the Gloria Patti to essentially the same music as the Verse, and there is a final choral reprise of the Respond, which is sometimes further shortened: an ABA, BA form.

Taverner almost certainly invented a new type of Responsory form with his settings of Dum transisset sabbatuum. In these the solo sections which are left in plainchant while the sections assigned to full choir are adorned with polyphony, the chant remaining clearly audible as an equal-note cantus firmus, usually in the tenor. The progressively shorter repeats of the Respond are exploited to give a new kind of formal coherence. This distinctively English style of setting was popular towards the end of Henry’s reign but was also presumably revived under Mary. Tallis, in his Responsory settings of this type, such as Videte miraculum, creates a fundamentally syllabic style by extensive word-repetition, and shows great skill in presenting his ideas in imitation against the cantus firmus. The texture of all these settings is very sonorous, with an atmosphere of solemnity and restraint which is characteristic of most of Tallis’s music. (Tallis at some stage revised one of his own Dum transisset sabbatum settings to work in a compliment to Taverner, taking the means briefly above the trebles in the Alleluia section to sing a short but instantly recognizable quote from one of the older master’s settings.)

The enchantingly simple O nata lux is a setting of two verses from the hymn at Lauds on the Feast of the Transfiguration, but was obviously not designed for the liturgy: it makes no use of the chant, sets only the first two verses, and has an unliturgical repeat of the last two lines. Taking his earlier hymns as its starting point, it is homophonic throughout and perfect in its subtle harmonic and melodic touches and the repeat of the final section is in the manner of Tallis’s English anthems.

Absterge Domine was one of Tallis’s most popular settings appearing in four contrafacta sources as well as the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae. Deeply penitential in character, it falls into a number of short sections some of which are repeated for dramatic effect. Tallis’s sure hand for drama is obvious throughout, allowing the motet to rise and fall, using minor and major modes to heighten and release the dramatic flow.

– David Shuler, Director of Music

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