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There are no records of Tallis's early life. His year of birth is usually taken to be about 1505 making him eighty years old at his death on 23rd November 1585; he had described himself as "very aged" eight years before. Since his entire career was spent in London and southern England he was probably born in the south, perhaps in Kent. In any case this was the county of his first known appointment, Dover Priory, and the location of the Manor of Minster, the house later leased to him by Mary Tudor.

In 1532, Tallis is described as organist at the Benedictine Dover Priory: when he moved to his next appointment at St. Mary-at-Hill in the City of London his post is not specified in the 1537 and 1538 records, but we assume that he was either the organist or a singing man. The next reference to Tallis is in 1540 at the Augustinian abbey of Holy Cross at Waltham Abbey where he was a senior gentleman. The Abbey was surrendered to the state on 23rd March 1540 and the staff dismissed. Only a fortnight later the Benedictine priory of Canterbury was also surrendered, and we next hear of Tallis as a vicar-choral in 1541 and 1542 at the re-founded secular Canterbury Cathedral.

Tallisís final appointment was as a senior gentleman at the Chapel Royal from around 1543 onwards. During his time in the royal household Tallis served four monarchs, Henry VIII to 1547, Edward VI from 1547 to 1553, Mary I from 1553 to 1558 and Elizabeth I from 1558 onwards. Rather late on in his life, in or around 1552, Tallis married a woman named Joan. He died on 23rd November 1585 leaving his house in Greenwich to his wife who survived him by four years. He was buried in St. Alphege, Greenwich.

Tallisís early works were written for the Sarum rite, the liturgy in use in England until the Reformation. The music is large scale and melismatic and consists of settings of votive antiphons and ritual music for the mass and office hours. The Reformation and with it the new prayer book of 1549 created the need for simpler music and settings of vernacular texts, a need to which Tallis was quick to respond. The accession of Mary Tudor who re-introduced the Catholic rite enabled Tallis to return to the large scale English Catholic style of composition, although works from this period such as the mass Puer Natus Est Nobis clearly show Tallisís more developed style and the first signs of continental influence which was to affect all English composers in the second half of the 16th century. The act of settlement introduced by Elizabeth in 1559 abolished the Catholic rite for ever and Tallis reverted to writing English services and anthems for public use, though he continued to produce settings of Latin texts which were allowed for devotional use.

In all this, Tallis demonstrated a most remarkable versatility, changing and adapting his style to suit the prevailing political environment. Viewed as a whole his music holds up a mirror to the political and religious changes of the sixteenth century.

List of Works

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