Master Musicians: Tallis

Kerry McCarthy

Oxford University Press USA: Master Musicians series
Hardback, 288 pages, 235x156x31mm, ISBN13: 9780190635213

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) survived the complex Tudor period in England, adapting to the various musical and liturgical demands of the period’s religious toing and froing. For one so influential on English music, it is unfortunate that very little is known about his life, something that is immediately apparent from reading Kerry McCarthy’s book. Based on surviving documents from his life, she is obliged to weave a web of historical and observational information around the bare facts of Tallis’s life.

Tallis lived through one of the most turbulent periods of English history. But it was one that produced some extraordinary music that became a rare historic example of England being at the heart of the development of western music. The keyboard music of Wiliam Byrd, for example, can be directly linked to the influential school of the Netherlands and North Germany and thence to Bach. Although fewer than a hundred of Tallis’s works survive, they demonstrate a wide variety of musical styles, ranging from tiny miniatures to the monumental forty-voice motet.

Kerry McCarthy follows Tallis’s career from his early appointment at Dover Priory to his years as one of the senior members of the Chapel Royal. The paucity of available information means that much of the text is woven around Tallis’s life and the surviving specific documented events. Readers wanting to delve into Tallis’s life may find this frustrating, although the sub-texts make for fascinating reading. One example is the second of two chapters on the Chapel Royal which is dedicated to a journey along the Thames from Windsor to Greenwich calling into the places where Tallis made music for four monarchs. The book concludes with reflections on Tallis’s will and his epitaph. 

It is well written and very readable. The author is honest about what is fact and what is conjecture, with frequent phrases like “may well have”. Amongst so much information it is perhaps churlish to plea for more, but I would have liked rather more than a passing reference to Dionysius Memo (Memmo) who was organist of St Mark’s Venice from 1507-16 before being appointed as privy organist to Henry VIII in 1516 and music teacher to the young future Queen Mary. He is potentially an important link between the 15th-century central European organ world, for example, the school of Conrad Paumann, and the early 16th century English organist composers such as John Redford, Thomas Preston and Tallis himself. Although there are a few paragraphs on Tallis’s keyboard music in The Mulliner Book, including the two extraordinary Felix Namque pieces dated 1562/4, the information on the organs that Tallis might have known is a little suspect, not least the suggestion that the current organ in St Alfege, Greenwich, “still has a substantial section of keyboard (now on the middle manual) that seems to have belonged to the original “pair of organs” inventoried there in 1552″.

The book includes 14 figures and 44 music examples. My only quibble on the layout is that the margins of the pages are notionally the same size (c2cm) which means that the inner part of each page is reduced as it slides into the fold. Many books do this nowadays, and I don’t really understand why. Unlike the recent Oxford University Press Master Musicians book on Bach (reviewed here), the footnotes are delegated to the back of the book, between the Appendices and the General Index, rather than appearing on the page they reference. To make things worse, the Notes are divided into separate chapters, but with only the chapter number rather than the title. So, before you look up a footnote, your first have to work out what chapter number you are on (the chapter titles are at the head of each page, but not the numbers) before you try to find the relevant note.

There is a companion website here that is supposed to have “additional information, extended musical examples, audio examples and Appendix supplements”, but all I could find are very brief musical extracts from commercial recordings. It is perhaps unfortunate that this reviewer was the first (and may possibly still be the only) organist to record all of Tallis’s organ pieces (for the Chapelle du Roi’s Tallis: Complete Works series of recordings on the Signum label). Had the author or publishers known that, they would perhaps have had the foresight to acknowledge the performer in their website extracts from those recordings, and also improved the quality and volume of the extract (for example, see here and here).

You can read extracts from the Preface and 35 sample pages here. Further information can also be found here. The book is divided into chapters as follows –

Documents of Tallis’s Life
1 Dover Priory (1530-31)
2 St. Mary-at-Hill (1536-38)
3 Waltham Abbey (1540)
4 Canterbury Cathedral (1541)
5 The Chapel Royal (1543-85) I: Community and Ceremony
6 The Chapel Royal (1543-85) II: A Journey Down the Thames
Documents of Tallis’s Music
7 Setting the Stage: The Antiphonale of 1519-20
8 Earliest Traces
9 The Mulliner Book
10 The Peterhouse Partbooks
11 The Gyffard Partbooks
12 The Wanley and Lumley Partbooks
13 Archbishop Parker’s Psalter
14 The Cantiones of 1575
15 The Baldwin Partbooks
16 Three Monuments
17 Remembrances
A Chronology
B List of Works
C Personalia
D Select Bibliography

Notes, General Index, Index of Tallis’s works