Thomas Tallis kept much of his life to himself which was probably wise in a bloodthirsty century when serving a monarch could be good news one day and fatal the next. The first post we know he had was as organist at Dover Priory, where he was described as joculator organorum, player of the organs. Joculator means ‘player’ and is also where we get ‘juggler’ and the French ‘jongleur’. It sounds a jolly sort of job.
Tallis the professional musician spent most of his life as a court musician, serving the kings and queens at their Greenwich palace. The latest biography says that in his lifetime he saw "a massive influx of new musical practices from outside England. He saw the birth of the music publishing industry in London. He saw the creation of new genres and the transformation of old genres beyond all recognition."
How did he know what to do? How did he measure the risks and opportunities? What made him decide, in the courts of mercurial, violent and unpredictable monarchs, what was worth risking his neck for?
I think there’s a clue hidden in his epitaph:
As he had lived, so also did he die
In patient quiet sort (O happy man);
To God full oft for mercy did he cry,
Wherefore he lives, let death do what he can.
Tallis had a long view. He was a Roman Catholic Christian, which he had to hide for a huge chunk of his life. He would have been ready to die. He would have kept his soul in order. He would have hoped patiently for the best, cultivating optimism about what he could build and what he could leave behind. He would have hoped that the world would change for the better.
And he wanted to know that world. He was inquisitive. Tallis learned from anyone who passed through the court, questioning the great musicians of Spain and the new, plainer singing from Germany. He worked with it all to develop a unique music that’s still in daily use five hundred years later.
Tallis can’t be pigeonholed as just a survivor, though that was itself a remarkable achievement. He was an artist, a thinker, dedicated to a creativity that flooded his days.
What a gift that example is to our school, to be named, at four hundred years’ distance for a man who was "at ease with a broad range of styles and could move freely among them while keeping a distinctive voice of his own [...] He did not merely survive constant change; it made him even more resilient and more capable.’"
Fifty years of school history seems like a long time to us, earthbound and rational as we are. But Tallis’s optimism and inquisitiveness made his name live forever. The songs of his past echo round the world and as long as singers sing he’ll be known and loved. Though he died in 1585 he’ll live as long as history because he loved the thought of the future, of wondering, questioning, exploring and investigating and challenging assumptions that terrified lesser people. You’ve got to love the man’s optimism.