2014-09-28 Notes from the Bench

“In ieiunio et fletu” by Thomas Tallis

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


In ieiunio et fletu orabant sacerdotes:

Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo,

et ne des hereditatem tuam in perditionem.

Inter vestibulum et altare plorabant sacerdotes,

dicentes: Parce populo tuo.


In fasting and weeping the priests prayed:

Spare, O Lord, spare thy people,

and give not thine inheritance to perdition.

Between the porch and the altar the priests wept,

saying: Spare thy people.

The English composer and organist, Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), made significant contributions to English choral repertoire during the Renaissance era. Today, he is considered one of the most important and greatest of all English composers.

Details of Tallis’s childhood remain unknown. His earliest musical experiences may have been singing as a choirboy for the chapel royal at St. James’ Palace. He would later return to the chapel royal as an adult becoming a Gentlemen of the Court in 1543. Prior to his appointment at the chapel royal, Tallis served as the organist for Dover Priory, a Benedictine monastery in Kent; Waltham Abbey in London, a large Augustinian monastery in Essex; and Canterbury Cathedral.

Tallis served the English monarchs of the era, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I, as a composer and performing as an organist. The sixteenth century was a tumultuous time in England; the events associated with the reformation of the Church influenced the music written for the liturgy. As a composer, Tallis was skilled enough to adapt his writing style to meet the different demands of the monarchy and church officials; he composed works written in syllabic and chordal styles as well as pieces utilizing elaborate and florid polyphony, setting texts in both English and Latin. Queen Mary provided for Tallis a comfortable manor home in Kent and an annual income. He, along with his student William Byrd, later enjoyed a monopoly on the publication of music in England having been granted a patent by Queen Elizabeth I and permission to use the paper necessary for publishing music. His position of favor with the monarchy allowed him to avoid a considerable amount of the religious controversy and turmoil that was prevalent during his lifetime, even though he, as well as Byrd, quietly remained Roman Catholic.

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