Monday, November 23, 2009

Thomas Tallis

Today is the anniversary of the death of English composer Thomas Tallis, in 1585. Almost nothing is known of his early life, not even the exact year of his birth (best guess seems to be around 1505), let alone the date.

In 1532 he became the organist at the
Benedictine priory in Dover, and this seems to be the first date recorded in association with his life. Other organist positions followed until 1543, when he received a royal appointment as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a musical job in which he sometimes sang in or led the choir, played the organ, and composed music for the services there.

Though Tallis did compose some works for keyboard, most of his compositions are sacred choral music. Due to the changes in the monarchs of England during his lifetime, he had to compose both in English for the services of the new Church of England, and at other times had to compose in Latin for the Catholic liturgy. Tallis himself was Catholic, and some scholars believe that his Latin pieces show his sympathy for that side.

The hymn tunes of Tallis (
some of which are still used today) mostly come from an edition of the Psalter that was translated in 1561 by Matthew Parker, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Queen Elizabeth I. Tallis wrote nine tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, eight of which were used for multiple psalms (the ninth was solely used for a translation of the hymn Veni sancte spiritus). This particular tune, probably the most well-known by Tallis, was adapted from the eighth tune of the psalter.

All praise to thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
Beneath thine own almighty wings.

When in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with heavenly thoughts supply;
Let no ill dreams disturb my rest,
No powers of evil me molest.

Teach me to live, that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed.
That with the world, myself, and thee,
I, ere I sleep, at peace may be..

O may my soul on thee repose,
And with sweet sleep mine eyelids close,
Sleep that may me more vigorous make
To serve my God when I awake.

Thomas Ken, 1693; alt.
Thomas Tallis, 1561

This hymn by Bishop Thomas Ken, originally had eleven stanzas (and he added one more a few tears later), but most of them have not been sung in the last two hundred years or so. One that I find interesting, though it was perhaps a bit too vivid for the Victorians:

Dull sleep, of sense me to deprive!
I am but half my days alive;
Thy faithful lovers, Lord, are grieved,
To be so long of thee bereaved.

P.S. This hymn was Number Four on the list of The Best Church Hymns seen here last week.


Leland Bryant Ross said...

Interesting that you omit to mention by far the most enduring and ubiquitous of the stanzas, the one that has taken as its most frequent title in many denominations the very term for its genre...

C.W.S. said...

The oblique reference is to this stanza.

Yes, it was at one time the final stanza to this hymn, as well as to Ken's morning hymn, Awake, my soul and with the sun. However, over the years, many hymnals chose to publish that stanza separately, as the Doxology, and it often no longer appears with the longer hymns it came from. Like here.