Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)

Tallis was the most influential English composer of his generation, as well as one of the most popular renaissance composers of today. Tallis served as an organist and in other professional capacities for four English monarchs, including in the Royal Chapel. Together with his most famous student William Byrd, he obtained a monopoly right from Queen Elizabeth I for the publication of vocal music. Tallis presided over the most dynamic period in English musical history, during which the continental style of structural imitation was largely adopted by English composers in the wake of the reformation and supression of the monasteries. 

Though Tallis' music includes a wide range of styles and objectives, the bulk of his output is choral music, both in the older Latin motet style and the newer English anthem style. Lyrical ideas usually dominate his musical impulses, and his polyphony is often primarily chordal or homophonic. He was not especially interested in technical counterpoint as such, and his settings have a consequent air of serenity about them that arises from the straight-forward musical means used to develop melodic ideas. His sacred Latin choral music is his most highly regarded achievement; this large output is mostly in the motet genre with a wide range of personally selected texts, set syllabically in the style of the continental Renaissance masters of Italy and the North. His English Anthems also played an important role in the early development of this long-lived genre.

Most of Tallis' music is in a conservative vein, but there are a handful of compositions illustrating an experimental nature. These include a pair each of "In Nomine" consort pieces and organ compositions in which the most extravagant technical means are employed. In addition, his magnificent and justly famous setting of the motet "Spem in Alium" for forty voices uses the largest set of forces known in Renaissance music. What is regarded as probably Tallis' final composition, "The Lamentations of Jeremiah," is also his most highly respected. This fine dramatic piece contains wonderful melodies, finely wrought counterpoint, and delicious dissonances; for its wealth of invention and expressive intensity, it is unique not only in Tallis' output but in English Renaissance music as a whole.

Today, Tallis' music continues to be extremely popular. It has been used for motivation by such contemporary composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Maxwell Davies, as well as providing much of the impetus for the early music movement in English choral performance. Though Tallis' technical achievements pale by comparison with many of his near contemporaries, his music has a superbly communicative element of human expression which still speaks directly to audiences.