Feature: Thomas Tallis (±1505-1585): Sancte Deus

In early Tudor England composers produced four main types of church music:

  • Masses,
  • Magnificats,
  • Votive antiphons
  • Smaller liturgical pieces

From this we know that Tallis would have composed this votive antiphon for four voices (SATB) during Henry VIII’s reign but before the Reformation. It must have been fairly popular because it was set both by John Taverner and William Whytbroke round about 1525, so it was popular for at least ten years and maybe as long as fifteen before Tallis wrote this setting. The Gyffard part books also contain a setting by Philip van Wilder and Andrew Carwood believes that this influenced Tallis. I’m not sure I agree with Carwood I think Tallis 180 x 150it’s more likely given that Tallis composed it sometime between 1535 and 1545 that he had Taverner in mind rather than van Wilder.

I find it to be an interesting piece of music not only because of its inherent beauty but also because of what it is. It’s an antiphon – specifically it’s a votive antiphon, a penitential votive antiphon, and most importantly of all it’s a Jesus antiphon or to put it another way it’s an antiphon that glorifies Jesus as opposed to the majority of votive antiphons which glorify his mother. Musically it’s in four parts, somewhat looser in structure than Tallis’ later works but far more succinctly and tightly written than contemporaneous Marian pieces which tended to be very elaborate and very florid. This relative tightness of structure and the clarity of the text show that Tallis had an interest in reform from quite early on and is further evidence that Tallis like Taverner was interested in music that blended new and old. It’s also a small insight into the start of the Henrician assault on the Church even before he launched that assault Henry was preparing the way and downplaying the famous English devotion to The Virgin and substituting devotion to her son was part of those preparations.


Thomas Tallis (±1505-1585): Sancte Deus

Sancte Deus, sancte fortis,
sancte et immortalis, miserere nobis. Nunc, Christe, te petimus miserere quaesumus, qui venisti redimere perditos:
Holy God, holy and mighty,
holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.
Now, O Christ, we beseech you to have mercy upon us, you who came to redeem those who have erred.
noli damnare redemptos,
quia per crucem tuam redemisti mundum.
Do not condemn those whom you have redeemed;
for through your cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.

Performers: The Choir of  New College Oxford directed by Edward Higginbottom

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