For me, Thomas Tallis is the unparalleled genius of Renaissance music. Tallis was my gateway early music drug, leading me to a rabbit hole of music that I will never bottom out. Nearly within living memory of Tallis’ older contemporaries, music had existed in two parts, male and boy, singing octaves, fourths and fifths only. Tallis exploded the idea of what was possible in music like no one before him. The sheer texture of his music is unrivaled, even by Bach’s most complex fugues. I lack the skill to explain how I hear Tallis, but perhaps my description of him as the most tactile of Renaissance composers will find common ground with your ears. Here is the pinnacle of his achievement: Spem in Alium. Scored for 40 individual voices, the work is divided into eight choirs of five voices each. The opening theme moves through each of these choirs individually, until all 40 voices come together in a climax at the 40th bar. This has led many to suggest that Tallis composed this work to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 40th birthday in 1573. I like to think that’s true.
Again, we turn to the Tallis Scholars for one of my absolute favorite pieces of music of all time and another Desert Island Disc:
Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium:
Bonus: In the 1980s, the avant-garde Kronos Quartet had Tallis’ masterpiece transcribed for string quartet. Through the magic of overdubbing, four instruments become Tallis’ 40 voices. Placing this track here, a decade before their Early Music album, Kronos shows us the musical conversation that stretches across the centuries and binds us all together in a world of sound. Their transcription appears alongside works by Charles Ives, Dimitri Shostakovich, George Crumb and others. While all of the compositions on this album are linked by the subject of war, Kronos also appears to argue that you cannot understand modern music without understanding Tallis first. I agree.
Kronos (after Thomas Tallis), Spem in Alium: