Posted by: rcottrill | November 23, 2010

Today in 1585 – Thomas Tallis Died

Thomas Tallis was England’s leading church musician during the reign of Henry VIII, and other Tudor monarchs that followed him. The composer lived through Henry’s conflict and final break with the Church of Rome, and he wrote music for both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. Tallis served as an organist in Dover, then in London. Around 1543 he became “Gentleman of the Chapel Royal,” probably playing there and composing for the rest of his life.

Tallis is famous for writing the most complex choral work ever produced. Most commonly, choir pieces involve four parts (or voices) singing together–soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Occasionally a higher soprano obbligato is added for effect. But Tallis has given us a choral number in 40 parts, written for eight five-voiced choirs!

Thomas Tallis composed a few hymn tunes that are still in use four centuries after they were written. One is Tallis’ Canon used with All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night. And Tallis’ Ordinal is used with When All Thy Mercies, O My God.

When all Thy mercies, O my God,
My rising soul surveys,
Transported with the view, I’m lost
In wonder, love and praise.

(2) Today in 1872 – John Bowring Died
A prominent British statesman and linguist, John Bowring served two terms as a member of parliament, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1854. Bowring also wrote several hymns, including: In the Cross of Christ I Glory, God Is Love–His Mercy Brightens, and the lovely carol Watchman, Tell us of the Night. (For more about the man, and another of his hymns, see Today in 1792.)

Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,
Lo! the Son of God is come!

(3) Today in 1895 – Sylvanus Phelps Died
Sylvanus Dryden Phelps was an American Baptist clergyman who pastored churches in Connecticut and Rhode Island. He also became editor of The Christian Secretary. His son attained wider fame than the father, being an author, critic and scholar, and professor of English at Yale University for 41 years. The son famously said, “This is the first test of a gentleman: his respect for those who can be of no possible value to him.”

Sylvanus Phelps wrote a number of books, of both poetry and prose. But he has left us only one fine hymn, written in 1862, Saviour, Thy Dying Love (also called Something for Thee). It was published under the heading, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6, KJV). It is somewhat problematic whether we can actually give God anything, since He has created all things. But rendering to Him our obedience and our sincere worship would seem to fit the case.

Robert Lowry, who wrote the tune, said, “It is worth living seventy years even if nothing comes of it but one such hymn.” Phelps, for his part, said of Lowry’s tune, “Dr. Lowry has given wings to my hymn.” It was the author’s wish that his tombstone recognize him for the hymn, and it was.

Saviour, Thy dying love Thou gavest me.
Nor should I aught withhold, dear Lord, from Thee.
In love my soul would bow, my heart fulfill its vow,
Some offering bring Thee now, something for Thee.

At the blest mercy seat, pleading for me,
My feeble faith looks up, Jesus, to Thee.
Help me the cross to bear, Thy wondrous love declare,
Some song to raise, or prayer, something for Thee.

Give me a faithful heart, likeness to Thee.
That each departing day henceforth may see
Some work of love begun, some deed of kindness done,
Some wanderer sought and won, something for Thee.

All that I am and have, Thy gifts so free,
In joy, in grief, through life, dear Lord, for Thee!
And when Thy face I see, my ransomed soul shall be
Through all eternity, something for Thee.


  1. […] Phelps was 46 at the time, and Lowry was 36, so the latter seems to be making a general reference to the Bible’s “three-score and ten” (Ps. 90:10), and the productivity of one’s lifetime. Whether or not we would go to Mr. Lowry’s heights of praise, it is a fine hymn. (For a bit more on Sylvanus Phelps and his hymn, see the third item under Today in 1585.) […]

  2. Thomas Tallis is one of my favorite Renaissance composers. Truly a “renaissance man,” having served the English Court through Henry VIII, Edward VI, Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I.

    I recommend the CD “Thomas Tallis – The Complete English Anthems.” It is an excellent recording. The liner notes are available on the record company’s website.—The-Complete-English-Anthems.aspx

    • Thanks for the input. As far as the blog is concerned, Tallis gets only a brief mention simply because my focus is more on hymns and gospel songs contained in hymn books printed in the last 50 years or so. But he certainly had a ring-side seat to some important British history, living during the reigns of those monarchs!

      • You get the Iggster’s stream of consciousness this early in the morning. Slightly sidetracked from the scope of your blog, but Tallis’s hymn tunes are in Track 8, Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter. Three or four of them are in recent hymnals.

        All Praise to Thee My God This Night set to Tallis’ Canon ranks among my favorite hymns, btw. Some hymnals use a tune by Gounod with the meter LMD, which tinkers with the doxological stanza since it gets combined with the stanza that precedes it.

  3. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]


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