Main content

Thomas Tallis

Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan considers Thomas Tallis's complex life and religious faith as a 16th-century composer living at a time of great danger.

Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan considers the faith lives of four very different composers.

Over the centuries, composers have created musical masterpieces which many listeners have come to regard as spiritual touchstones. For example, Tallis's motet Spem in alium, Wagner’s opera Parsifal, Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, Bernstein's Mass. But what did these composers actually believe about God, faith, compassion, an afterlife and redemption? And do we need to share these beliefs in any way, to have a spiritual experience as listeners to their music?

Answers to these questions are complex, fascinating and challenging.

Thomas Tallis witnessed England's faith switch four times in his life, yet he cleverly survived without persecution to live into his 80s. He composed through the reign of Henry VIII who broke away from Rome to create the Church of England. Then, he had to totally switch his compositional style to please Edward VI. Mary I was a Catholic which signalled a return to earlier techniques. And finally, Protestant Elizabeth I required a different type of religious music again.

James MacMillan talks with conductors Harry Christophers, Peter Phillips and Suzi Digby about the sort of man Thomas Tallis must have been to not only survive the religious and political upheavals that he witnessed throughout his life, but also to compose some of the most magnificent English choral music ever written.

The programme features the following music by Tallis:
Salvator mundi
If ye love me
Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater
Puer natus est nobis
Lamentations of Jeremiah
Spem in alium

Plus: O Radiant Dawn by James MacMillan

Produced by Rosie Boulton
A Must Try Softer production for BBC Radio 4

Available now

28 minutes

Last on

Mon 7 Dec 2020 16:00


  • Mon 7 Dec 2020 16:00