El­iz­a­beth I’s favoured com­poser breathes his last

BBC Music Magazine - - The Full Score -

‘As he did live, so also did he die, in mild and quiet sort (O happy man!); To God full o for mercy did he cry, where­fore he lives, let death do what it can.’ So read the epi­taph of Thomas Tallis, ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial and im­por­tant English com­poser of his era. That peace­ful de­meanour de­scribed on his grave­stone, though, was in stark con­trast to the tur­bu­lent era in which he had lived.

It was on a late-au­tumn day in 1585 that Tallis died at home in Greenwich – ei­ther 20 or 23 Novem­ber, de­pend­ing on which of the Bodleian Reg­is­ter or the Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal you choose to be­lieve. No one felt his pass­ing more keenly than his fel­low com­poser, busi­ness part­ner and friend Wil­liam Byrd, whose mu­si­cal el­egy Ye Sa­cred Muses re­flected his grief: ‘Ye sa­cred Muses, race of Jove, whom Mu­sic’s lore de­lighteth, Come down from crys­tal heav’ns above to earth where sor­row dwelleth, In mourn­ing weeds, with tears in eyes: Tallis is dead, and Mu­sic dies.’

Just over ten years ear­lier, on 21 Jan­uary 1575, Tallis and Byrd had, re­mark­ably, been granted an ex­clu­sive li­cence by El­iz­a­beth I for print­ing mu­sic in Eng­land. Re­mark­able, that is, be­cause both were Catholics – Tallis from birth; Byrd hav­ing con­verted in adult­hood – who were ply­ing their trade dur­ing the reign of a Protes­tant queen. A case of can­nily judged tol­er­ance on the monarch’s part, or sim­ply recog­nis­ing tal­ent when she saw it and want­ing to en­cour­age it? Which­ever it was, the pair soon re­paid the monarch’s faith with the pub­li­ca­tion of the Can­tiones Sacrae, a vol­ume of 34 Latin motets, 17 by Tallis and 17 by Byrd. The numbers are un­likely to have been co­in­ci­den­tal, given that the day of pub­li­ca­tion – 17 Novem­ber – hap­pened to co­in­cide with the 17th an­niver­sary of El­iz­a­beth’s reign. It never hurts to flat­ter roy­alty.

The younger of the two com­posers by around 30 years, Byrd (born c1540) had spent the ma­jor­ity of his adult life un­der El­iz­a­beth’s rule. Tallis, in con­trast, had pre­vi­ously steered a course that saw him emerge un­scathed through the English Re­for­ma­tion un­der Henry VIII, the Protes­tant reign of Ed­ward VI and the re­turn to Catholi­cism un­der Mary I. Doubt­less, his diplo­matic dis­po­si­tion helped, but so did his abil­ity to adapt his style to meet the con­trast­ing re­quire­ments of di er­ent faiths. It was

not all plain sail­ing, though, and the con­sis­tent mourn­ful­ness ex­pressed through works such as his Lamen­ta­tions of Jeremiah – al­most cer­tainly in­tended to be per­formed in pri­vate rather than in any o cial ca­pac­ity – hint at the mis­ery felt by a Catholic com­poser en­dur­ing Protes­tant rule.

Need­less to say, English mu­sic did not die with the death of Tallis. Led by Byrd him­self, who lived on for an­other 37 years, plus com­posers such

Thomas Tallis had emerged un­scathed through the reigns of three mon­archs

as Thomas Mor­ley, John Dow­land and Or­lando Gib­bons, the golden era would last well into the Stu­art era. And cen­turies later, Tallis’s own name would be­come fa­mil­iar once again. While, in 1910, the great man’s melodic gi in­spired Vaughan Wil­liams to write the hugely in­flu­en­tial Fan­ta­sia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, his cho­ral works also then en­joyed a ma­jor re­vival in cathe­drals, chapels and churches. With en­sem­bles such as the Tallis Schol­ars con­tin­u­ing to spread his ge­nius across the globe, this ‘mild and quiet’ com­poser of Tu­dor Eng­land to­day enjoys a level of pop­u­lar­ity he would never have imag­ined pos­si­ble.

Be­nign monarch: El­iz­a­beth I gave Tallis un­ex­pected sup­port

Catholic col­leagues: Byrd (left) marked the death of his friend Tallis (right) in suitably elegiac style

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