English Arts Chorale

Thomas Tallis

Spem in alium nunquam habui
A Motet in Forty Parts

Buy Tickets Now ►

Spem in alium nunquam habui
Praeter in te, Deus Israel
Qui irasceris et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum
in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator caeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostram
I have never put my hope in any other
but in Thee, God of Israel
who canst show both wrath and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins
of man in suffering
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
Regard our humility

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)

As no records about the birth, family origins or childhood of Thomas Tallis exist, almost nothing is known about his early life or origins. Historians have calculated that he was born in the early part of the 16th century, towards the end of the reign of Henry VII of England, and estimates for the year of his birth range from 1500 to 1520.

He avoided the religious controversies that raged around him throughout his service to successive monarchs, though he remained, in the words of the historian Peter Ackroyd, an "unreformed Roman Catholic". Tallis was capable of switching the style of his compositions to suit each monarch's different demands.

No record of Tallis exists before 1531, when he is named in the accounts of Dover Priory, a Benedictine priory in Kent. He was employed there as the organist, tasked with directing chants from the organ.  A "Thomas Tales" is named as the "joculator organorum" at the priory who received an annual payment of £2. The priory was dissolved in 1535; there is no record of Tallis's departure.

Tallis' whereabouts are not known for the next few months until his employment at St Mary-at-Hill in London's Billingsgate ward.  Records show he was paid four half-yearly payments from 1536 to 1538, with the last one being for services—as either a singer or an organist—for the year up to 25 March 1538.

Towards the end of 1538 Tallis moved to the large Augustinian monastery Waltham Abbey, Essex, through contact with the abbot, whose London home was near to St Mary-at-Hill, becoming a senior member there.  When the abbey was dissolved in March 1540, Tallis left without receiving a pension (being recently employed there), and was instead given a one-off payment of 40 shillings. He took away a volume of musical treatises copied by John Wylde, once a preceptor at Waltham. It contained a treatise by Leonel Power that prohibited consecutive unisons, fifths, and octaves.

By the summer of 1540 Tallis had moved to the recently secularized Canterbury Cathedral, where his name heads the list of singers in the newly expanded choir of 10 boys and 12 men. He remained there for two years.

Tallis's employment in the Chapel Royal probably began in 1543. His name appears on a 1544 lay subsidy roll and is listed in a later document. It is possible that he was connected with the court when at St Mary-at-Hill, as in 1577 Tallis claimed to have “served yo[u]r Ma[jes]tie and yo[u]r Royall ancestors these fortie yeres”. He may have been responsible for teaching the boys of the choir keyboard and composition.

In 1575, Elizabeth granted Tallis and Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish "set songe or songes in parts", one of the first arrangements of its kind in England. Tallis composed in English, Latin, French, Italian, and other languages. He had exclusive rights to print any music in any language, and he and Byrd had sole use of the paper used in printing music. Amongst the collection of works they produced using their monopoly was the 1575 Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, but despite its catchy title it did not sell well and they were forced to appeal to Elizabeth for support. 

He died in his house in Greenwich on 20 or 23 November, and was buried in the chancel of St Alfege Church, Greenwich. A brass memorial plate placed there after the death of his wife was lost in the subsequent rebuilding of the church, but the inscription was recorded by the English clergyman John Strype in his 1720 edition of John Stow's Survey of London

    Entered here doth ly a worthy wyght,
    Who for long tyme in musick bore the bell:
    His name to shew, was THOMAS TALLYS hyght,
    In honest virtuous lyff he dyd excell.

    He serv’d long tyme in chappel with grete prayse
    Fower sovereygnes reygnes (a thing not often seen);
    I meane Kyng Henry and Prynce Edward’s dayes,
    Quene Mary, and Elizabeth oure Quene.

    He mary’d was, though children he had none,
    And lyv’d in love full thre and thirty yeres
    Wyth loyal spowse, whose name yclypt was JONE,
    Who here entomb’d him company now beares.

    As he dyd lyve, so also did he dy,
    In myld and quyet sort (O happy man!)
    To God ful oft for mercy did he cry,
    Wherefore he lyves, let deth do what he can.


Source: Wikipedia


Spem in alium

The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). It is most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally all voices join for the culmination of the work. Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its elegant harmonic framework, allowing for a large number of individual musical ideas to be implemented during its ten- to twelve-minute performance time. The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mass, the work is continually changing and presenting new ideas.


Source: Wikipedia