Thomas Tallis: Music for Kings

Thomas Tallis: Music for Kings

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When your job is to compose music for kings, it’s in your best interest to bow to their royal whims. That need for adaptability was particularly keen for English composer Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585), whose career bridged the profound switch from Catholicism to Protestantism that came to pass when Henry VIII wanted a divorce. Because Tallis was a man who knew his job, we have great music from him suitable for both denominations, as can be heard in some recent recordings.

Tallis himself was a Catholic, which might have been a problem under Henry’s rule if the king hadn’t been so passionate about music or if Tallis had been a lesser talent. After Henry died, the composer served both Catholic and Protestant successors to the throne, the last being Elizabeth I. The artistic whiplash Tallis must have experienced is documented on the album Queen Katherine Parr and Songs of Reformation (Obsidian Records), a collection of Tallis’ work performed by the vocal ensemble Alamire accompanied on viols by Fretwork.

The album’s title refers to Henry’s sixth and final wife. Much of the program is devoted to “anthems,” or religious songs Tallis composed for the new Church of England. For example, “Purge Me, O Lord” is a four-voice setting of an anonymous Protestant text. Alamire applies its usual velvet tones and flowing yet clear phrasing. They are one of the finest early-music vocal groups working these days.


But the centerpiece of the album is Tallis’ Latin motet “De gloriosa Dei mater” and a related work not discovered until the 20th century. Tallis’ training was in Catholic polyphony, and Henry – an accomplished composer himself – would have valued the elaborate beauty of that style. Yet Catholic sacred works in Latin were not welcome in the new English church. What to do? Just change words!

A few decades ago, the English words written by Katherine Parr for a section of that same motet were found behind a plaster wall in Corpus Christ Church, Oxford. She wrote “Se Lord and Behold” to be sung before Henry went into battle. Alamire’s is the first recording of it.


Tallis’ official job was to provide music for the Chapel Royal (“chapel” being the term for the music department of any court). In their Resonus Classics debut recording, the modern-day Gentlemen of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace have devoted their attention to Tallis’ Catholic music. Thomas Tallis: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, directed by Carl Jackson, includes two of the composer’s Latin Masses plus some sections of motets.

The current Gentlemen consist of 14 male voices, probably similar to the group Tallis wrote for in the 16th century. This is a well-trained choir, although not possessed of Alamire’s extraordinary perfection and nuance. This performance of the Credo from Tallis’ untitled four-voice Mass is solid, with good intonation.


Another all-male group with a new Tallis recording is the Renaissance Men (or RenMen, as they’re known in their native Boston). With only nine members, they have an intimate sound, sculpted by their director Eric Christopher Perry.

RenMen Laments celebrates the more sorrowful texts set by Tallis. The best known of these is the Lamentations of Jeremiah, a text that Tallis set twice; this recording includes the first. Among RenMen’s strengths is their unforced emotional development within each phrase, taking great advantage of Tallis’ dissonances and rhythmic freedom. That’s an especially important focus in lamentations from the Renaissance, when dissonance was musical language for pain and poignancy.


As beautiful as all the preceding pieces are, Tallis’ most celebrated work is a truly Olympian achievement, the spectacular motet “Spem in alium.” Happily, it is the subject of a brand-new recording by the ORA Singers, a British ensemble directed by Suzi Digby. Their reason for making the recording was what they call “the 450th anniversary of one of choral music’s most iconic works.” That places the composition in 1570, the year when most musicologists agree it was written. Tallis is thought to have been inspired to better a 40-voice work by Alessandro Striggio. Tallis’ response was his own 40-part polyphony – that’s 40 separate parts conceived as eight 5-voice choirs.

There’s an extra treat available to accompany this recording: ORA commissioned animator Stephen Malinowski to make a graphic representation of the interaction of all those voices. He chose a wonderfully simple concept, colored lines, which proves an excellent listening aid to a piece that tends to float past in a blur because of its complexity. The animation also highlights the ensemble’s (and particularly Digby’s) insight into this complexity. By the way, there really are forty singers involved, with no overdubs.


The ORA recording also includes a musical commission, a new 40-voice polyphonic work by Sir James MacMillan in the sacred motet text “Vidi aquam.” This glittering piece proves that complex counterpoint need not be a thing of the past.

But as inspiring as it is to look to the future, a work like “Spem in alium,” so difficult to perform and record, also deserves a glance backward. So it’s nice to know that there is a recent remaster of the first attempt to put the Tallis behemoth on vinyl, the legendary 1965 recording by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, conducted by David Willcox, a true innovator in finding and performing early works for choir. The recording dates from the infancy of the early-music movement, so the attention to detail in phrasing and vocal production falls far short of today’s standards. But without the likes of Willcox, the ORA Singers and their ilk would not exist.


Although he lived four centuries ago, Tallis continues to soothe us with the beauty of his music. Just look at the many YouTube videos of his polyphony made since COVID-19 isolated us in our homes. For some reason, the most popular Tallis quarantine song is “If Ye Love Me.” In the past few months, versions have popped up by many amateur groups and a few pro ensembles. The best among them is this one by the New York-based Polyhymnia, which I hope will soothe whatever ails you in these challenging times.

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