Music of the High Renaissance: Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis was one of the most accomplished composers of English Renaissance music. His specialty is choral music, especially polyphonic pieces that combine the voices of multiple choirs distributed in a church setting such as the sublime Spem in Alium which has to heard in a large cathedral for the fullest effect. He also wrote more intimate pieces such as the lovely If Ye Love Me, set to the words of the New Testament in which Jesus said to his disciple, “If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever.” (John 14:1`5-16).

Little is known about Tallis’s early life, except that he was born in the early 16th century, toward the close of the reign of Henry VII, and that he composed and performed his music for a succession of monarchs including Henry VIII (1491-1547), Edward VI (1547-1553), Queen Mary (1553-1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558 until his death in 1585). 

Here are the two Tallis works mentioned above. We begin with his serene and expressive choral work, If Ye Love Me, which has become one of the most recognized anthem from the English Renaissance.

Next is the magisterial 5-choir choral work, Spem in Alium (Latin for “Hope in any other’). It is believed that Tallis composed the motel [1] around 1570 when he was 65, when he set the words of his music to the Matins response, “I have never put my hope in any other but you, O God of Israel.”

The music Tallis came up with has moved audiences for generations. It is not hard to see why. Unlike most Renaissance motets, which usually have anywhere from three to six voices, Spem in alium has 40 independent voice lines. Starting with just one voice, each part weaves in and out of the others, passing from one group to the next, combining polyphony with chordal movement and creating a flow and harmony that is simply astonishing.


[1] Motet: a polyphonic choral composition on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment.

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