The Music of Thomas Tallis

The Director of Music writes…

Avid followers of the Music List will have noticed that the Sundays in Lent are ‘bookended’ by motets by Thomas Tallis: In iejunio et fletu on the First Sunday of Lent and Salvator mundi on the Fifth Sunday of Lent.  Another Tallis motet, O sacrum convivium will be sung at the Maundy Thursday Eucharist.  All three of these wonderful pieces (members of the choir will testify to my enthusiasm for this particular composer’s work!) come from the collection that Tallis published jointly with his young colleague, William Byrd.  The pair were granted a monopoly over the publishing of music in England by Queen Elizabeth I and this collection, published in 1575, was their first project.  The volume bears the somewhat cumbersome title Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (essentially “Songs which are called sacred on account of their texts”).  It was designed to showcase the best of English choral writing, and was dedicated to the monarch in celebration of the seventeenth anniversary of her accession to the throne.  Byrd and Tallis accordingly each contributed seventeen motets to the collection.

Tallis was seventy years old in 1575 (whilst Byrd was in his thirties), having survived what were tumultuous times for Roman Catholics, as both men were.  Tallis had the ability to create masterpieces in whatever style was the currency of the day, from the strictly chordal Protestant style of Edward VI’s reign to the countrapuntal, Catholic style under Queen Mary.  In his contributions to Cantiones Sacrae, we see a culmination of his life’s work in a combination of both styles; we see a man who, now nearing the end of his life, was, I suggest, less concerned with the threat that surrounded those of his faith (and indeed, Queen Elizabeth seemed to be very much of the view that if Catholics were loyal to her and discreet in their worship, she would tolerate them, particularly if they were as talented as Byrd and Tallis!) and more concerned with his legacy as a composer: in Cantiones Sacrae, therefore, I believe we see the music that reflects Tallis’s truest self.

In iejunio et fletu (which was sung by the choir at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Lent, and one of my favourite anthems of our repertoire), was probably one of the last pieces Tallis wrote, and has often been compared to his other late motet, Derelinquit impius and indeed to his famous setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.  The text is taken from Joel 2.17 (is the verse number merely a coincidence?!):

“In fasting and weeping the priests prayed: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people, and give not thine inheritance to perdition. Between the porch and the altar the priests wept, saying: Spare thy people.”

Joel was a post-exilic prophet who writes about living under the heathen. For a Catholic living under Protestant rule, the sentiment behind this verse could surely be construed as aggressively Catholic!  The music Tallis writes to set this text is quite exceptional in a number of regards illustrating, perhaps, his own sympathy with these anguished prayers on behalf of an oppressed priesthood.

The motet is written at an extremely low pitch (when performed at St Peter’s, we transpose it up a full major sixth), and presumably therefore intended to be sung by men only, the lack of boys’ voices giving it a similarly sombre (priestly?) timbre to the Lamentations.  From the outset, this extraordinary motet largely avoids the contrapuntal, imitative textures common to much of Tallis’s other Latin music (such as Salvator mundi and O sacrum convivium); instead he adopts a markedly more chordal, homophonic style (interestingly owing more to Tallis’s Protestant style, adhering to Archbishop Cranmer’s preference for syllabic word setting).  Only towards the end of the motet, in the numerous repetitions of “parce populo tuo”, does a more contrapuntal texture appear.  But arguably the most remarkable aspect of this piece, and what struck me so strongly when I first encountered it (and every time I return to it on the First Sunday of Lent each year) is Tallis’s approach to harmony – the piece contains a number of extremely exotic chord progressions and represents Tallis at his most harmonically inventive, even experimental – a composer in his twilight years, throwing caution to the wind!