The contributions of Thomas Tallis to 16th century English music cover a wide set of domains. Given Tallis’ versatility, genuineness and grandeur, the techniques of arrangements credited to Thomas Tallis have managed to survive through the centuries. Much is still mere speculation about his earlier life, although a few claims stand out as certain facts.
Born early in the 16th century, Tallis would embark on a spectacular voyage in musicianship, making startling and original contributions to English music of the day. He served under several monarchs, easily reshaping his music to suit their demands and needs and for the better half of his life, became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal where he composed music for the remainder of his career. At the time when Tallis hit the peak of his career, England was in the midst of a phase of religious revivalism, and the music made in this period had slowly been shifting from what one can call conservative Latin to modern Vernacular texts in the form of lyrics and musical arrangements. Nevertheless, Tallis created dozens of compositions for King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth and a variety of arrangements for the masses concerning themes deemed sacred at the time.
Tallis’ first professional appointment was as organist for a monastery called Dover Priory. After playing here for a while, he moved to London to perform at another monastery, after which he had brief stints at a couple of other monasteries before finally settling at the Chapel Royal. Here, he would contribute and compose significantly for high-born figures of England, such as Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. Tallis’ music carried with it a wistful, yet delightful aura that penetrated the hearts and minds of all that heard his compositions. This particularly stood out in his earlier works, such as Salve Intemerata Virgo and Ave Dei Patris Filia where especial focus on liturgical, syllabic and chordal progressions became more prominent, keeping in line with what Latin norms had been in the past. However, soon after, Tallis became the first musician to use English in his songs and anthems in the reign of Edward VI, replacing Latin as the original language the text was written in. However, with the advent of Mary Tudor, things went back to normal and compositions like Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater from this period demonstrates the reversion to the original Catholic method and themes of composition.
With the beginning of Elizabeth’s rule in 1558, there was a spark in English texts, though Latin was a primary mode of text formulation. This period saw resurgence in Puritan customs as opposed to Polyphony, and some of Tallis’ works prove this exact change. For example, the most popular work was a motet called Spem in Alium, one that was brilliant in its arrangements and demands utmost recognition. It was a motet that primarily found birth with an 8-choir structure, with a voice composition covering five different ranges. In this piece, the concepts of imitation and voice collaboration were ideal tools for a smooth performance of the motet. In Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Tallis also worked with William Byrd on a printing and publishing arrangement of polyphonic music, something he continued till his death in 1585.
Thomas Tallis demands special attention when considering some of the most esteemed composers in 16th century England. Even in a period where religious tension and strife demanded immense flexibility, skill and dexterity, Tallis always managed to come through with some of the most original and unique compositions. Although most of Tallis’ works are hard to find these days, many techniques he inscribed in his arrangements are still dominant and play a crucial role in modern-day English classical music.