Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 - 1585)

 [Modern commemorative window in St Alfege Church]

 [Modern commemorative window in St Alfege Church]

Tallis was born in or around 1505. Very little is known about his early years. He may have been a chorister in the Chapel Royal in St James’s Palace. In 1532 he became the organist in Dover Priory, and then he was at Waltham Abbey in Essex, dissolved in 1540. One of the books he acquired there survives in the British Museum, with his signature and his name in capital letters (see below); no reliable portrait exists. He died in his home in Greenwich in 1585, and was buried in St Alfege Church nearby. But the old church collapsed and was rebuilt in the 18th century, only to be bombed during World War II; his grave is no longer to be found, only the commemorative window above.


After Waltham Abbey Tallis was employed in Canterbury Cathedral, and then became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543. His long life enabled him to serve as musician and composer under four monarchs, Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, and his Catholicism did little to affect his career. He was able to adapt his compositions and style to the demands of each reign. 

Tallis has one work to his name which receives frequent concert performances and has even been the subject of a modern artistic installation by Janet Cardiff, his 40-part motet Spem in Alium, commissioned by the Duke of Norfolk. Allegedly written as an answer to another 40-part work by the Italian composer Striggio, who visited England in 1567, its almost oceanic sound has made it popular beyond the ambit of other Renaissance music. Another of his compositions inspired Vaughan-Williams’ well-known Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. But Tallis left much other music – Masses, motets, psalm settings, lamentations and anthems, in Latin and English, as the times, the church and the liturgy changed. 

Tallis is something of a musical chameleon. His surviving music spans an extraordinary range of styles, without any discernible artistic compromise. One can listen to his votive antiphons in the expansive pre-reformation idiom, concise anthems in line with the Protestant reforms, full-blooded responsories for Queen Mary's chapel, and urbane Latin motets written during Elizabeth's reign.

Tallis had a long association with William Byrd, whom he taught and later worked with in various ways, including as a music publisher under a patent granted by Queen Elizabeth. Byrd wrote an elegy, Ye Sacred Muses, on Tallis’s death. Its last line is ‘Tallis is dead, and Music dies’.

Further Reading

Brett, P. (2007) William Byrd and his Contemporaries, Berkeley/London: University of California Press