Tallis and Howells

By kind permission of the Warden and Scholars of the House or College of Scholars of Merton in the University of Oxford

Tallis: Why fum’th in sight
Howells: Salve Regina
Tallis: In ieiunio et fletu
Howells: Inheritance
Tallis: Veni Redemptor
Howells: Requiem
Tallis: Gaude gloriosa Dei mater
Howells: Master Tallis’s Testament
Tallis: E’en like the hunted hind
Howells: Like as the hart
Tallis: Spem in alium
Howells: Agnus Dei

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Tonight we celebrate the achievements of Thomas Tallis and Herbert Howells, who became the most celebrated composers of church music in the reigns of Elizabeth I and II respectively. It is also an opportunity to trace the extraordinary parallels in the lives of these composers, as well as the very direct musical links between them.

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585)
Tallis was probably born in Kent, and his first post was organist at the local Benedictine Priory at Dover. He then moved to London, where, after a brief appointment at St Mary-at-Hill, Tallis took up a leading position at Waltham Abbey until its dissolution in 1540. After a brief return to his country roots (as lay-clerk at Canterbury Cathedral), he spent the rest of his career in London.

Tallis’s life was overshadowed by the far-reaching religious changes brought about during the five reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth II. Within less than two decades Tallis witnessed not only the national religion being changed three times, but also the loss of the musical heritage he had been brought up with.

During the different stages of his very long life, therefore, he found his musical expression in very different forms. In the early part of his career, he concentrated on decorated Latin masses and antiphons for the Catholic liturgy. But the music for which he is still best known was written during his ‘Anglican period’ in later life. However he never lost his early love of rich textures that so well accompany the soaring architecture of the (originally Catholic) English cathedrals.

That Tallis managed successfully to straddle the different worlds he found himself in, is demonstrated by the fact that he excelled equally in, for example, his simple but haunting tunes for metrical psalms, and his complex extended works, such as Spem in alium. And he was no doubt helped to cope with such a challenging life by a personal characteristic summed up on his tombstone:

As he did live, so also did he die,
In mild and quiet sort (O! happy man).

Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Howells was born in Gloucestershire, and his first post was as pupil organist at the local Gloucester Cathedral. He then moved to London, studying at the Royal College of Music, where he came under the influence of Hubert Parry, whose humanity inspired a lasting affection. After a brief return to his country roots (as sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral), he spent the rest of his career in London.

Howells’s life was overshadowed by the far-reaching social changes brought about during the five reigns of Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI and Elizabeth II. Within less than three decades Howells witnessed not only two world wars, but also suffered the overwhelmingly tragic death from meningitis of his only son, Michael, at the age of 9.

During the different stages of his very long life, therefore, he found his musical expression in very different forms. In the early part of his career, he concentrated on chamber music, songs and Latin music for the Catholic liturgy. But the music for which he is still best known was written during his ‘Anglican period’ in later life. However he never lost his early love of rich textures that so well accompany the soaring architecture of the (originally Catholic) English cathedrals.

That Howells managed successfully to straddle the different worlds he found himself in, is demonstrated by the fact that he excelled equally in, for example, his simple but haunting Mass in the Dorian Mode, and his complex extended works, such as the Requiem. And he was no doubt helped to cope with such a challenging life by a personal conviction summed up in a BBC interview:

I have written really, to put it simply, the music I would like to write and for no other reason.


Tallis/Why fum’th in sight (The Third tune: Psalm 2); Howells/Salve Regina

The whole Psalter translated into English Metre by Matthew Parker, the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, was printed (but not published) in 1567. It included a series of eight psalm-tunes by Tallis, the melody in each case being found in the tenor part. This third tune of the set famously gave rise to Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, first performed at Gloucester Cathedral in the Three Choirs Festival of 1910. Howells, who was present, singled it out as amongst the most important seminal experiences of his life, being ‘a supreme commentary by one great composer on another.’ Indeed, this connecting back with the 16th century has been described as ‘one of the defining moments in the process of the birth of the English musical renaissance’ (Paul Spicer). It certainly offered the young Howells a fleeting vision both of his future and of his musical and spiritual roots. As he said later, ‘Ralph [Vaughan Williams] and I were both attracted by Tudor music, plainsong and the modes. And Vaughan Williams was later to describe his friend as ‘the reincarnation of one of the lesser Tudor luminaries’.

It was therefore entirely appropriate that when Howells began to study with Stanford at the Royal College of Music in 1912, one of his teacher’s first actions was to send him off to the recently completed Westminster Cathedral to hear R.R. Terry’s choir. Terry was leading the revival of Renaissance polyphony, being the first conductor of recent times to conduct the masses of Byrd and Tallis liturgically. Indeed he was the founding editor of the pioneering publication of Tudor music by the Carnegie Trust, a task for which he recruited the young Howells as assistant. The effect of all this on Howells was immediate, and underlined Vaughan Williams’ later remark that Howells had an ‘intuitive affinity’ with the Tudors. Salve Regina was composed for Terry and his choir in 1915: and while the influence of Stanford is still evident, so too are the modal inflections, and the masterful pacing of emotional climaxes that would characterise Howells’ mature compositions.

Tallis/In ieiunio et fletu; Howells/Inheritance

Elizabeth I had been brought up as a Catholic by her father, Henry VIII, and at times she must surely have hankered after the lost colour and richness of the old religion. Indeed, at the outset of her reign she allowed considerable freedom of practice and belief. Though she was firmly in favour of a vernacular liturgy for the general population, she was happy to license a Latin version of her 1559 Book of Common Prayer, for use in college and university chapels where Latin was understood. In her own chapels she certainly liked a more lavish ceremonial (including choral music) than some of her clergy could stomach.

It was in this context that Tallis, together with his close friend and colleague William Byrd, jointly published their Cantiones sacrae (‘Sacred songs’) in 1575. This was a collection of 34 Latin motets, 17 by each composer, designed as much for private domestic use as for churches and cathedrals, and was dedicated to Elizabeth I. One of these, In ieiunio et fletu, was almost certainly among the last works that Tallis composed. A setting of a Lenten penitential text which can be read as especially apposite to the plight of the recusant Catholic community, it tells of weeping priests who beg to save their heritage from destruction. This must have had some personal echoes for Tallis, who had witnessed the wholesale destruction of much of England’s church music tradition in the Reformation.

Howells’s part-song Inheritance was similarly dedicated to Elizabeth II, being the composer’s contribution to A Garland for the Queen, a collection of such pieces by the leading composers of the day and presented on the occasion of the coronation: an echo perhaps of The Triumphs of Oriana, a set of madrigals probably dedicated to Elizabeth I by the leading composers of her day. It sets a poem by Howells’s friend Walter de la Mare, which, somewhat like the text of In ieiunio, is concerned with the defence of the national heritage.

Tallis/Veni Redemptor gentium

In this hymn for Vespers on Christmas Eve, the organ is used as a substitute for the voices, replacing text that would otherwise have been sung in plainchant. Tallis wrote two different organ settings, each of which is an elaboration of the plainchant melody.


When Howells began his Requiem in 1932 it was originally intended for King’s College, Cambridge (although there is no record of it ever having been sent there). Howells noted that his son Michael (then aged 6) had made his mark on the score (he added a note). But tragically, Michael died just three years later, an event that was to scar Howells for the rest of his life. Howells’ great musical outpouring of grief for his only son, the oratorio Hymnus Paradisi, is based on material from the Requiem. It was only at the urging of Vaughan Williams that the oratorio was eventually performed in 1950, and the Requiem itself was not published until 1980.

The work does not use much of the traditional liturgical text for a Latin Requiem, but, as with Brahms, interleaves devotional psalms and scriptural passages. The handling of unaccompanied choral textures shows Howells at the height of his powers, with perhaps the perfect balance between his love of lucid polyphony and his equal desire to employ every harmonic device to give full expression to the text. In summary, it is a work that (even in its equal use of Latin and English) strives to straddle the best of the Catholic and Protestant worlds.

Tallis/Gaude gloriosa Dei mater

In the Catholic tradition, a ‘votive antiphon’ in honour of the Blessed Virgin was sung at the close of Compline, the last Office of the day. Gaude gloriosa is undoubtedly one of the longest polyphonic settings of such a text, and was almost certainly Tallis’s last work in the form. It may have been written late in the reign of Henry VIII, or else during the short return to Catholic liturgy under Mary I (1553-58). Certainly the text – a ninefold address to the Virgin, exhorting her rejoice in the divine blessings showered upon her – might have served both as a devotion to the Queen of Heaven and a compliment to the Queen of England.

Such a long work requires considerable handling of structure and pace. Tallis retained the traditional distinction between the full choir and ‘verse’ sections (employing just a few of the voices). Other features include the use of the ‘gymel’, where for a short section particular voices are isolated and sub-divided into two, enabling a particularly intense form of expression within a smaller vocal compass. Tallis also makes masterful use of the device of imitation, whereby characterful musical ideas are passed between the voices. Word-painting can also be heard: for example, at the words ‘potestate diabolica’ (dominion of the devil), the voices plumb the depths, but with ‘liberati’ (liberate) the voices soar high with long melismatic phrases.

Howells/Master Tallis’s Testament

This organ work of 1940 was one of the composer’s favourite compositions, referring to it as a ‘footnote to the Vaughan Williams work [the Tallis Fantasia], and even more a personal throw-back to the Tudors’.

Tallis/E’en like the hunted hind (The Fifth tune: Psalm 42) Howells/Like as the hart

Tallis’s simple tune for Psalm 42 could not be more different from Howells’s anthem on the same psalm, composed in wartime in 1941. The latter is an outstanding example of the composer’s ability to develop a high degree of spiritual emotion in a brief compass. It was also the work that provided the springboard for his extraordinary outpouring of music for the English cathedrals over the last 40 years of his life.

Tallis/Spem in alium nunquam habui

Spem in alium is surely the greatest of all Tallis’s musical achievements. Written for eight choirs of five voices each, this is a noble and monumental edifice that makes creative and imaginative use of the extensive musical palette. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir; gradually the voices enter in imitation and, as the earlier voices fall silent, the sound moves around the line from choir one to choir eight. During the fortieth bar, all forty voices enter simultaneously, and then the process happens in reverse with the sound moving back from choir eight to choir one. After another brief full section the choirs sing in pairs alternately throwing the sound across the space between them until finally all voices join for a culmination to the work.

Tallis was probably commissioned by Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, to compose the work – as an answer to Striggio’s 40-part Ecce beatam lucem, with the first performance taking place in the long gallery at Arundel House on the Strand in 1570. It is intriguing to note, too, that the banqueting hall of Nonsuch Palace – Norfolk’s country home – was octagonal, perfect for a performance of this octagonal piece.

Howells/Agnus Dei II (from Mass in the Dorian Mode)

Finally, we return to the very earliest homage that Howells paid to the Tudor composers: his 1912 Mass in the Dorian Mode, (a form previously employed by Tallis) which marked the beginning of his fruitful and reciprocal relationship with Terry and his choir at Westminster Cathedral. The whole Mass is written in a modal-polyphonic style of extreme chastity; and the final Agnus Dei is founded on a strict canon between the two soprano parts. The Mass was the first work of Howells to receive a professional London performance.

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  • Stopford: Ave Regina Caelorum

  • Tavener: Butterfly dreams

  • Poulenc: Bois meurtri

  • Musgrave: The subway piranhas

  • Weir: Love bade me welcome

  • Britten: Carry her over the water

  • Fauré: In paradisum

  • Somewhere over the rainbow

  • Chilcott: Advent Antiphons

  • Rachmaninov: Vespers

  • Allwood: Charades III

  • Tallis: Lamentations

  • Josquin: Agnus Dei

  • Have yourself a merry little Xmas

  • Schumann: Zuversicht

  • Poulenc: La bonne neige

  • Stanford: The Blue Bird

  • Britten: God’s grandeur


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  • Media

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    The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the [Albert] hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s [Prom] festival (Music OMH, July 2015)

    A profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms (Seen and Heard International, July 2015)

    In the posthumous premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Monument to Beethoven, [John] Scott’s organ interjections brought visionary breadth to the Elysian Singers’ luminous tapestry (The Times, March 2014)

    Amongst chamber choirs they’re one of the best (Sir John Tavener, BBC TV interview)

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    The excellent Elysian Singers directed by Sam Laughton (Classical Source, reviewing our 2014 Festival Hall concert)

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    Excellently performed by the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton (Keith Potter, The Independent)

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    Last night’s concert was wonderful–and the links between these two great composers intriguing. Many thanks indeed (PE, Oxford)

    Heard your Gallant Weaver recording played on Radio 3 this morning – beautiful! It made my day 🙂 Gordon (e-mail address supplied)

    There were so many bits I loved. But most of all you looked, as a choir, like you were actually enjoying yourselves. Your encore made me cry for some reason – I think sitting there for a couple of hours was perfect therapy in the run up to Christmas – it made me want to run home and stick the girls’ stockings up and scatter cinnamon around the house (TM, London)

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