Friday, 22 January 2016


Thomas Tallis was a member of The Chapel Royal and would serve the Tudor
Dynasty as Organist and Composer over the course of four reigning Monarchs.
January 22 is a most significant day in music for England. It was on this day in 1575 that composers and organists to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, Thomas Tallis (a long-time musician to the court of England, having served three Tudor monarchs before Elizabeth: Henry VIII, his protestant son, King Edward VI, and half-sister to Elizabeth and Edward - Queen Mary I, respectively), and Tallis’ most beloved pupil, one William Byrd, would make English history with the exclusive rights to not only print and publish the polyphonic music of which they had just been granted a 21 year monopoly, but also the right to enforce the strict prohibition of sales of any “songs made and printed in any foreen countrie(s)” in a game-changing attempt at introducing to the world - and seeking dominance in it - the English repertoire among the masses, taking full advantage of the newly improved printing press.

Tallis and Byrd, both favorites of the Queen would be made able, thanks to the patent granted them by Elizabeth, to compose and print music to be used in the church in many of the popular tongues of the period, including English, Latin, French and Italian. Even further. the musical duo were the only composers permitted to use the paper on which music was printed!

William Byrd was once a star pupil of Tallis.
These grants came at an interesting time in British History. By the time Tallis and Byrd had received oligopoly over polyphonic music in 1575, England was already well into the throes of Religious Reform. Elizabeth had already sat some 17 years on a throne which had seen varied states of religious upheavals, revolts and reversals in her predecessors Tudor. Her notoriously fickle father Henry VIII had been the major catalyst behind the secular divide of Catholics and Protestants when he, following his infamous break from the church of Rome some two decades prior in order to legally divorce his wife and reigning Queen Catherine of Aragon and marry protestant Anne Boleyn in her stead), chose to set into motion the Act of Supremacy in 1534 in which he declared himself to be the ‘Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England’. With the advent of Martin Luther and his translated biblical texts into English, Europe - already on the brink of a series of religious civil wars across the continent - armed with this new, powerful public backing from an otherwise formerly neutral world leader, would find it’s citizens re-ignited by the already flickering spark of revolutionary spirit.
Protestants and Catholics alike would endure extremely violent, dogmatic reigns under the Tudor dynasty, reigns that would include instated Queen’s heads rolling off the chopping block, to executed ministers, archbishops and common reformists alike. Catholic churches would see themselves whitewashed and stripped of ornamentations in both ‘décor’ (icons) and in liturgical service (music; the ‘making of the cross’ on one’s chest) and replaced with the relatively conservative services of the Protestants, only to be violently undone and to have all ornamentations restored under the conditions of Catholicism during the reign of Mary I just prior to Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.

Music went through much change as the denominations of Christianity rapidly fluctuated, and, under Elizabeth, Tallis - who had been a constant at the Tudor court over the course of three monarchs and now on his fourth - would adjust the music of the Chapel Royal accordingly:

during the periods of Catholic flourishment, the highly ornamental and embellished polyphonic music consisted of rich and elaborate harmonies sung by multiple voices reminiscent of the music of the Renaissance era, while during the Protestant rise and wane, the rich and elaborate would be replaced by the softer, muter, more simple practices of singing with only ‘one syllable per note’ (as envisioned by one archbishop Cranmer), with emphasis placed less on aesthetic structure and more on the transparency of the texts that accompanied the compositions themselves (elaborate ornamentations being considered too 'Popish' for Protestant ears).

Elizabeth I as she would have appeared
in 1575, pictured here in the so-called
"Pelican Portrait" by painter
Nicholas Hilliard.
Elizabeth, having previously bore witness to the divide amongst the subjects of both herself and her predecessors, sought a more neutral approach in religion and it’s use of music, seeking to placate zealots on both sides of the religious divide by instituting her own Act of Uniformity in 1559, which included the 'Ornaments Rubric' clause: the ultimate royal show of religious compromise which would allow the Queen to retain for the Church of England traditional Catholic ceremonies, such as the ‘making of the cross’ at baptisms, and the adornment of the surplice and the cope amongst the clergy, while the doctrine of the Church itself would remain Protestant in nature. Accordingly, she would adjust, through her grant bestowed upon Tallis and Byrd in 1575, the rich polyphonic music of the old (Catholic) church with the new, more simple sound of the protestant choir, creating a uniquely English hybrid of vocal repertoire that, while initially facing public scorn via the religious fanatics of the ever-tumultuous period, would introduce into Europe a ‘Golden Age’ of Elizabethan music – one that continues to astound and astonish audiences around the globe to this day.

Listen below to two of the thirty-four motets composed by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd from the Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur – a collection of compositions dedicated to Elizabeth's 17th year on the throne of England (accordingly, each composer contributed 17 pieces each to the mammoth work to represent each year of their beloved Queen's Reign), and in thanks for granting them the Printing Patent in 1575. This collection was the collective composer’s first work under the Monopoly.

#26, In Jejunio Et Fletu (in Fasting and Weeping) by Thomas Tallis:

#12, O Lux, Beata Trinitas (O Trinity of Blessed Light) by William Byrd:

- Rose.

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