Saturday, 5 May 2012

Thomas Tallis

Recently I have been exploring the polyphonic melodies of Thomas Tallis. What a magnificent composer this man was, and what an interesting individual. He lived during the Tudor Dynasty and composed music under four monarchs. First there was King Henry VIII who ought to be called King Henry the Promiscuous, for his many affairs and six marriages. It was he that broke away with the Catholic Church and formed the Anglican Church primarily because the Church would not sanction his divorce from his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, who did not bare him a male heir. Secondly, Tallis composed during the reign of King Edward VI, who comfortably could be known as Edward the Young -- he was but nine years old when he was crowned king, so most of his short reign was done by regents. Then Thomas Tallis served under Queen Mary I, also known as Bloody Mary, for her zeal of re-establishing the Catholic Church and suppressing the Protestant movement. During the Marian Persecutions nearly three hundred protestants were burned at the stake and who knows how many else had suffered under her rule. Finally, Tallis served under my favourite English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, aka Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen. Queen Elizabeth I was a stable force in England and probably one of the first monarchs to approach freedom of religion -- she was definitely much more religiously tolerant than her predecessors and also provided a stable environment for the arts to flourish. William Shakespeare lived in her reign. During this tumultuous time in the Church, Thomas Tallis kept working on his church music seemingly completely unaffected and oblivious to the religious turmoil around him. Apparently one can hear the Catholic-Protestant conflict in his work, as the work changes from one monarch to the next: Henry VIII was Catholic, Edward VI was Protestant, Mary I was Catholic, and Queen Elisabeth I was Protestant. I haven't listened to the music long enough for me to be able to detect the period differences clearly. In other words, I cannot from just hearing a piece say under which monarch that piece was supposedly composed. However, it seems to me, of what I've listened so far, that Tallis used these periods as creative opportunities, rather than have the conflicts disturb his creative genius. Even though he was in an ever changing church environment, Tallis seemed unaffected. He had a ministry, a divine calling, and was going to perform it regardless of internal church politics or external secular politics.


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