Tribute to Thomas Tallis

British composer Thomas Tallis was born 500 years ago. One of his most celebrated pieces of choral music was "Spem in Alium," a motet he wrote to be sung by eight five-voice choirs, each singing a different part.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Scholars are fairly certain that the English composer Thomas Tallis was born in 1505, although it's not known on which day. So the 500th anniversary of his birth is being observed all year with concerts and the release of several new recordings. To those who are familiar with the name, Thomas Tallis is best known for two works; One was written centuries after he died. NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr reports on Tallis and his musical legacy.

(Soundbite of "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis")

JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR reporting:

This piece, "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," was written by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910. The source of the melody was from a set called "Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter" by Thomas Tallis.

(Soundbite of "Why Fum'th in Fight")

Unidentified Choir #1: (Singing) Why fum'th in fight the gentiles spite, in fury raging stout? Why tak'th in hand the people fond, vain things to bring about?

FREYMANN-WEYR: Ralph Vaughan Williams' use of the tune--which he came across while editing the English Hymnal--helped rekindle interest in the music of Tallis, who'd been one of the most successful composers of Britain's Tudor period. Tallis lived to the age of 80. By the time he was in his mid-30s, he was serving as a musician in the Chapel Royal of King Henry VIII. Dr. David Allenson is a musicologist and performer. He says Tallis was able to survive, and even flourish, in the Chapel Royal during the Reformation, when the official religion of England alternated violently between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Dr. DAVID ALLENSON (Musicologist): Tallis was this extraordinary diplomat. I mean, it seems that he was very liked and respected by everyone he worked with in each different regime, under each different regime, as they came along.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Henry VIII had named himself supreme head of the Church of England and was succeeded by his three children, who each had different ideas about religion. His son, Edward VI, was a Protestant. During his reign, the Anglican Church required religious music to be less elaborate and have English texts.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Choir #2: (Singing in Latin)

FREYMANN-WEYR: Less than a decade later, Queen Mary brought Catholicism back to England for her five-year reign and required Latin texts for religious music. Then the last of the Tudors, Elizabeth I, took the throne and restored Protestantism. But Dr. David Allenson says fortunately for Tallis, the new queen didn't insist on musical austerity.

Dr. ALLENSON: Elizabeth, in particular, was very keen on elaborate music, and in some respects she held on to it because she knew it was reassuring for foreign ambassadors and so on. But she also loved music and, I think for her herself, as an appreciator of the arts, she simply valued and loved elaborate music in her services.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Choir #2: (Singing in Latin)

FREYMANN-WEYR: In the 1560s, an Italian composer named Alessandro Striggio was touring Europe with an enormous choral setting of the Catholic Mass for 40 individual singers, each with a different part, while in Protestant England, there was a performance of another of his pieces for 40 voices, a motet called "Ecce Beatam Lucem."

(Soundbite of "Ecce Beatam Lucem")

Unidentified Choir #3: (Singing in Latin)

FREYMANN-WEYR: The motet made quite an impression and bruised English pride.

Dr. ALLENSON: In the notebook of a law student, a chap called Thomas Wateridge, we find this little story that a music-loving duke asked whether none of our English composers could set as good a song. So it was a sort of competitive challenge, really, which Tallis took up.

FREYMANN-WEYR: And so Thomas Tallis wrote his own monumental piece, a motet called "Spem in Alium," also for 40 singers, eight five-voice choirs of independent parts.

(Soundbite of "Spem in Alium")

Unidentified Choir #4: (Singing in Latin)

Dr. ALLENSON: It's a kind of riposte to the Italian, but the thing is it's about 20 times better, because where the Striggio is content to rely on big, harmonic effects and contrasts, Tallis' piece is a truly woven polyphonic piece of music.

FREYMANN-WEYR: David Allenson says that the way the music is written creates a sense of growing space as each voice enters until all are singing.

Dr. ALLENSON: It is the most extraordinary and physical experience to feel the music traveling around you in the space.

(Soundbite of "Spem in Alium")

Unidentified Choir #4: (Singing in Latin)

FREYMANN-WEYR: Performing "Spem in Alium" at least once is a lifetime goal of many choral singers, and despite the logistics involved, it's been programmed for many concerts this anniversary year and featured on at least two new recordings.

Dr. ALLENSON: Performing "Spem" now is still an event and it's still something which is extraordinarily moving and physical in the space. And so for an audience now, it's not a relic from the past; it's something which absolutely comes alive and grips you in the moment and moves people today.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Spem in Alium,)

Unidentified Choir #4: (Singing in Latin)

HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(Credits)

HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen.

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