Elizabeth I’s favoured composer breathes his last
‘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