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THOMAS TALLIS—A RESILIENT COMPOSER OF MOTETS

PERHAPS IT’S NO surprise that Thomas Tallis merits mention here at SimanaitisSays, what with “Holmes and (Polyphonic) Motets” having already made an appearance here. Let’s not quibble about the redundancy of “polyphony” and “motet.” The words are Sherlock Holmes’, not mine. 

Actually, tnis time I’m lured by Peter Philips’ “No More D Minor,” a review of the book Tallis by Kerry McCarthy in London Review of Books, July 29, 2021. Like so much of the writing in LRB, the review bristles with lines worth repeating. Here are some of them, along with my usual Internet sleuthing. 

Tallis, One Resilient Guy. As noted in Wikipedia, “Tallis served at court as a composer and performer for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.” What with the religious controversies surrounding these reigns, and given that Tallis was what historian Peter Ackroyd termed “an unreformed Roman Catholic,” he was resilient indeed.

It’s akin to a person giving admirable service to both Trump and Biden. (Cheers for Dr. Fauci.)

Part of Tallis’s resiliency was in lying low: Details of his life are scant indeed. Phillips writes, “Unfortunately for historians, his music and his longevity are all we have to go on, since Tallis left almost nothing about himself. Unlike William Byrd and John Sheppard, he wrote no letters that have survived and never got into trouble with the law.”

Thomas Tallis, c. 1505–1585, English Renaissance composer.

Even this engraving of Tallis by Niccoló Haym is patterned after a portrait by Gerard Vandergucht, both of them 18th-century artists. Wikipedia notes, “No contemporaneous portrait of Tallis survives; the one painted by Gerard Vandergucht dates from 150 years after the composer’s death, and there is no reason to suppose that it is a fair likeness.”

Henry VIII Nationalizes the Monasteries. Phillips writes, “Four years into the dissolution [of the monasteries], there were few wealthy abbeys left to seize; the very last was Waltham Abbey, on 23 March 1540, where Thomas Tallis was employed.”

Phillips continues, “He left Waltham Abbey with forty shillings, twenty in ‘wages’ and twenty in ‘rewards’; and took with him at least one manuscript, possibly many more, from the abbey library. Lansdowne MS763, now in the British Library, contains the only surviving example of his handwriting (his signature).” And what a neat signature it is! 

The Challenges of Tudor Choral Gigs. Author McCarthy observes, “Whenever the sovereign was present, the floor of the chapel was covered with textiles, and the walls were hung with tapestry. The resulting acoustics would have been far from what we have come to expect in modern recordings and performances of Tallis’s music…”

Phillips notes, “At Whitehall, ‘the largest royal residence anywhere in Europe at the time,’ two pits were dug under the choir stalls, ‘hollow acoustic chambers of a type found in many English churches, designed to enhance the resonance of the singers’ voices.’ But the stalls were so richly covered with tapestries, the walls with fine hangings and the floors with carpets that ‘there were almost no exposed hard surfaces anywhere in the room. Even the large baptismal font was lined with linen cloth and hung with tapestry.’ ”

A Tale of Nonesuch. Today, Nonesuch is a budget classical label of Warner Music Group. 

In Tudor times, Nonesuch was a palace in Surrey built by order of Henry VIII. It stood from 1538 to 1682–1683. McCarthy writes, “The Nonsuch banqueting house was a detached free-standing structure built on an octagonal foundation. The main palace also featured two massive octagonal towers at either end, each with a grand eight-sided room inside. One of the eight-sided towers [is shown] in a drawing made by the Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel on a visit to England in 1568…”

Nonesuch Palace, Surrey, England. Image by Joris Hoefnagel, 1568.

 Quite possibly, McCarthy notes, 1568 was “the year Spem in alium [Latin: ‘Hope in any other’] was composed and first performed. Whether or not Tallis had those particular physical spaces in mind when he wrote a motet for eight equal choirs in circular motion and close interplay, his large-scale music is the product of a similar imagination.”

A Grand Motet: Spem in alium is a 40-part Renaissance motet composed for eight choirs. Indeed, Wikipedia says, “It is considered by some critics to be the greatest piece of English early music.

I must admit that I’m more familiar with Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, 1910, based on the “Third Mode Melody” of a 1567 Tallis work. 

I’ve never heard Spem in alium, but can imagine the choral majesty of 40 performers, arranged in eight choirs of five, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass, each singer having an interweaving role with the others. 

On the other hand, consider Phillip’s title, “No More D Minor.” He notes, “I overhead a singer at the end of one performance saying that if he had to sing another note of D minor he would slit his wrists.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021   

2 comments on “THOMAS TALLIS—A RESILIENT COMPOSER OF MOTETS

  1. Mike B
    August 17, 2021

    I wondered about “Spem in alium” – yes, a straight Latin translation is appropriate, but somehow (having just finished cleaning up after a nice dinner with just the right amount of onions) I couldn’t resist trying to build a title around the vegetable. which is spelled with two ‘l’s not one, so I was unsuccessful of course.

    An 8-sided polyphonal extravaganza must have been recorded by somebody. In Dolby or otherwise surround sound. Any pointers?

    • simanaitissays
      August 18, 2021

      Only if I dare slitting my wrists. (Kidding, of course, sorta.)

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