Born in Greenwich some time around 1505, Tallis held the post of "jocular organorum" at the Dover Priory from 1532, St Mary-at-the-Hill in London from 1537 and at the Augustine Abbey in Waltham from 1538 to 1540. Royal patronage followed; in 1543 he became Gentleman of the Chapel Royal under King Edward VI and continued in the post under Queens Mary and Elizabeth.
Tallis served alongside William Byrd, the two sharing the post of organist at court. The two were to collaborate closely, receiving a joint patent for the publishing of both printed music and blank manuscript paper. They were to attempt to exploit this license to its full extent with their joint venture of 1575, Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, or Cantiones Sacrae as it is more commonly known. At the time it was not a great success, but has since supplied some of the two composers' most performed works.
More remarkable, however, is Tallis' motet for 40 voices, Spem in Alium. A work of this complexity would be notable enough, but for Tallis to specify the positioning of the eight constituent choirs involved prefigures a use of spatial resources not fully exploited until several hundred years after his death. The quality of the work precludes either of these extraordinary devices being perceived as a mere gimmick.
As one might expect from a composer who wrote (convincingly) for 40 voices, Tallis was a great contrapuntalist. His works include masses, Magnificats, Lamentations and motets in Latin, but he was one of the first to set English words to church music. He died in Greenwich in 1585.
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