Thomas Tallis is a biographer’s challenge and a musicological detective’s delight. From the scant records that survive, we know that his world extended from Dover and the nearby Isle of Thanet to Westminster and Waltham Cross. He reached old age, but we cannot be certain about the precise year of his birth (1505?). He spent his final years, by then a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, in Greenwich and was buried in the parish church of St Alfege. He married in middle age and appears to have died childless. Prosperity and financial hardship marked various points of his career, as did mundane duties such as teaching musical rudiments to the Chapel Royal’s boys. It seems his faith endured in an age of religious upheaval.

‘Tallis is dead, and music dies.’ Fellow composer William Byrd’s moving valediction spoke for all touched by Tallis’s example as a maker of music, teacher and composer in service to four English monarchs. The question ‘Who was Tallis?’ is, in many ways, secondary to the question ‘What was Tallis?’. Younger colleagues knew that he had made a lasting contribution as a composer of church music, as did the Elizabethan copyists who preserved outmoded works from Tallis’s early years. Their high estimation of the man set foundations for his posthumous fame.

There could be no finer example to follow than Tallis. Age certainly did little to temper his creative powers. The famous 40-part motet Spem in alium dates from its composer’s sixth decade; the smaller but no less refined In ieiunio et fletu, meanwhile, perhaps dates from his 70th year. Composers of Byrd’s generation forged careers and reputations at a time of growing stability, after the strict imposition of Edward VI’s Protestant reforms and the persecutory bonfires of Mary Tudor’s reign. Tallis, born in the 16th century’s first decade, came of age as a musician under a system wedded to pre-Reformation customs and rites. He went on to write music for a church unrecognisable from that of his upbringing.

The fall out from Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Church followed Tallis to Waltham Abbey, one of the last great monastic complexes to be dissolved. As a newcomer to the Augustinian foundation’s musical establishment, he was granted a 20 shilling pay-off and also appears to have gained a music theory book from the Abbey’s library. His early Latin works, written before and after Henry’s reformation, show how Tallis assimilated conservative aspects of English sacred polyphony, elaborate melodic lines and sonorous textures among them, with advanced techniques from the continent.

The output of Tallis’s middle years bears witness both to the excellence of his craft and the far reaches of his invention. It also reflects the history of a nation in the grip of religious revolution and counter-revolution. Tallis proved to be an expert trimmer. In the late 1540s, he was among the first to write music for the new Anglican Church. The anthem If ye love me observed the demands of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and other reformers for clear English-language settings without slavishly setting every syllable to a single note. In short, his was an innovative response to the musical requirements of the Edwardian church.

When the Catholic Mary Tudor succeeded her half-brother Edward VI in 1553, Tallis retraced his musical roots and supplied her Chapel Royal with a Latin festal mass, soaring antiphons and responsories. His seven-voice Mass Puer natus est nobis was probably first heard at Christmas 1554 while Philip II of Spain was in London. Tallis drew on his experience of writing for the Latin liturgy in the time of Mary’s father, Henry VIII. He helped revive and preserve an old tradition, surpassing the sacred compositions of his youth.

Within the time it took to change royal regimes and their attendant religious practices, Tallis was able to shift from Anglican innovator to Catholic renovator, polishing and perfecting past techniques in his works for the old queen. His votive antiphon Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, for example, possibly began life as an English-texted piece in the last years of Henry VIII. In its final Latin form, Gaude gloriosa is the most impressive of all works written during Mary’s reign.

Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558 called for a second about-turn. Under the puritanical terms of the early Elizabethan religious settlement, Tallis proceeded to dust down techniques pioneered in his experimental compositions for Edward VI’s church. His English church music includes functional settings of the new Anglican liturgy, the nine four-voice psalm tunes for Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter of 1567 sublime among them.

The latter includes a memorable setting of Psalm 2, ‘Why fum’th in fight the Gentiles spite’, which supplied Vaughan Williams with the raw material for his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in 1910.

The list of English sacred works includes such ambitious pieces as the Te Deum for five voices and a frustratingly high percentage of fragmentary or lost compositions. The surviving works suggest by their quality that Tallis invested considerable professional pride, meticulous craftmanship and no little imagination in their creation. They served their purpose, satisfied the musical demands and limitations of the 1549 and 1552 prayer books, and created standard models for future settings of Anglican services.

Music may not have died with Tallis, but it was certainly reduced by his passing. The musical antiquarian Charles Burney hit the mark in the third volume of his A General History of Music, published two centuries after the composer’s death. Tallis, he observed, was ‘one of the greatest musicians, not only of this country, but of Europe, during the 16th century, in which so many able contrapuntists were produced.’

Andrew Stewart