Finding Harmony amidst Cultural Change

The sixteenth century was a cruel and confusing pendulum of religious change in England. Henry VIII, erstwhile Defender of the Faith, broke with Rome in the 1530s, albeit more in church government than in doctrine. (The irony: Anne Boleyn was a Protestant.) His son, Edward VI, took things in a more Protestant direction, although his brief reign was followed by his half-sister Mary’s (also brief) attempt to return the country to Catholicism. Her half-sister Elizabeth then returned England to a firm but moderate Protestantism, eventually prompting pressure for further reform. Thomas Tallis, the greatest English composer of choral music during this period, lived through all of these changes and managed not only to stay a firm Roman Catholic through all of them, but also to remain in royal favor. Tallis’s achievement has much to teach Mormons as we navigate the shifting currents of the cultures in which we are embedded.

How does one remain calm and centered among such tumult? With changes in religion also came changes in the language of worship, and Tallis adapted to these changes by taking musical settings and replacing their Latin texts with English ones (not always translations). In one case of translation, “Absterge Domine”


became “Wipe away my sins O Lord.”


In a certain sense, Tallis enjoyed a kind of cultural gift of tongues, using such adaptations to keep his core aesthetic and religious works relatively intact by preserving the Catholic polyphonic tradition while allowing the language of the texts to take a Protestant turn. Mormons, too, face the challenge of retaining our core identities while interacting with a shifting and pluralistic world; perhaps we should hope that Joseph Smith’s prayer at the Kirtland temple dedication—that “the gift of tongues might be poured out upon [God’s] people”—might find a fulfillment in the manner exemplified by Tallis. Here is his setting of Acts 2:4, in which the Apostles speak in tongues on the Day of Pentecost: may it inspire us to a cultural Pentecost!


This is not to say that adaptations of this sort are without their cost. We know little about the details of Tallis’s life, but his setting of Lamentations 1:1-2 seems especially personal, because it does not serve an obvious liturgical purpose. The text speaks of the lonely city of Jerusalem, weeping bitter tears because all her friends have become enemies. In those moments of wrenching tension with the culture around us, Tallis teaches us the grace of making exquisite beauty:


These times of tension usually remind us how complex our human lives are. Coming to terms with complexities in Mormon history or current practice can be both painful and difficult. How can so many competing voices come together in harmony? This was something Tallis might have thought about while composing his immensely technical 40-voice motet “Spem in alium [I did not have hope in another].” This piece was written for eight five-person choirs, apparently to be placed on the sides of an octagonal room in a celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday. If the difficulty of writing such a thing is apparent, the difficulty of performing it is even greater, for it requires great skill, confidence, and independence of each singer—to say nothing of the director responsible for keeping all of these moving parts in tune and in sync.


Tallis could handle such complexity, though, without eschewing the enduringly simple, even plain. This short piece—manageable by a ward choir—can teach us how, like Nephi, to glory in plainness:


With the Psalmist Tallis could say, “I have walked in my integrity; / I have trusted in the Lord and not wavered,” and what made this possible was God’s “steadfast love.” God’s love opens up space in us for enough trust to echo Jesus by commending our spirits and lives into God’s hands. As a memorial found near Tallis’s tomb says of him:

As he dyd lyve, so also did he dy,
In myld and quyet sort (O happy man!)
To God ful oft for mercy did he cry,
Wherefore he lyves, let deth do what he can.


Thus reposing in God, having been made rich by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, a new bounty becomes available—one quite befitting today’s celebration of Tallis—and that is our opportunity to give to each other through music. Kristine Haglund has spoken about how congregational singing, even for those of us who lack the musical gifts of a Tallis, can become a powerful means whereby we can “take upon us the fellowship of ministering to the saints.” As she puts it:

Congregational singing requires a particular kind of work, and a more difficult and terrifying kind of unity. Giving oneself fully to hymn-singing requires making ourselves vulnerable in a way that most modern humans spend a good deal of time and energy trying to avoid. What one must do is simply—and not simply at all—to love one’s fellow singers enough to risk embarrassment, to let our bodies be together in ways that are uncomfortable, to let enthusiasm and yearning overcome our social defenses. If a choir’s offering is a carefully wrapped gift to the congregation, congregational singing is the ragged, unpolished gift of ourselves to each other and to God.

If we can find the sort of still, centered integrity before God exemplified by Tallis, then let us learn from him how to convey that integrity to others, not as brash self-righteousness of the kind often on display in the religious pamphlet wars of his time (or in the comment thread dust-ups of our own), but by giving to each other the beauty of music, singing with gusto our own parts in that grandest of all polyphonic compositions, the divine anthem of Zion.



Mormon Lectionary Project

Thomas Tallis, 1585

Lamentations 1:1-2 (NRSV); Psalm 26 (ASB liturgical psalter); Luke 23:46 (NRSV); 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 (KJV)2 Nephi 25:1-8; D&C 109:36

The Collect: O God our Creator, who from primordial chaos wove cosmic harmony: tune our discordant hearts to thy key and cadence, that the songs of our lives might become acceptable gifts unto thee, and to each other; grant also that we, like thy servant Thomas Tallis, might have the grace to make beauty from the complexities of our world while finding our root and tonic in the simplicity of thy love, that we might be one people as thou, with thy Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, art One God, forever and ever. Amen.

Because there’s no such thing as too much Tallis, here is his marvelous setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, two core liturgical texts:


Scores of Tallis’s music are available at the Choral Wiki.



  1. Byrd (his student) did the same thing, check out “In civitas sanci tui” and “Bow thine ear, O Lord.” One of my favorites. I’ve never heard that last Mag/Nunc setting, probably because it’s in Latin so isn’t used commonly today like his Short Service Mag/Nunc is.

  2. “If ye love me” is also my go-to piece for starting a ward choir with singing real music. The great thing about Tudor music is it’s all out of copyright (not that ward choirs tend to care much about that), and much of it is English and scriptural.

  3. Yes, contrafacta were reasonably common in the era—and they afford further opportunities once you’ve warmed the choir up with “If ye love me.” The CPDL link at the bottom of the post (of which I’m sure you’re already aware) provides access to free scores of Tallis pieces, but also a whole lot more for those who care to explore it. Opportunities abound!

  4. Beautiful beyond words. Thank you.

  5. Excellent. Always liked Tallis, now I have even more reason.

  6. Thank you Jason. I find the symbolism of harmony (different yet complementary) a healing way to think about the Church right now. It’s clear our “one narrow narrative” (or narrow narratives about several gospel topics) has shattered and it’s tempting to want to quickly create a new narrative to take its place. But I think we have a chance to create something beautiful with all the new (even diverging) voices and even with the dissonance & tension, if we allow a space for it, if we aren’t too uncomfortable or afraid there, or too hasty to resolve everything (which usually requires stifling some of the voices and distorting, even silencing others).

    Thank you for the beautiful music. Even my bright green little parakeet starting chirping away madly in her cage when she heard the songs coming from my laptop.

  7. Amen to your beautiful comment, Jen. K.

  8. A perfect way to showcase Tallis for the devout Mormon. Thank you for this informative, uplifting devotional today.

  9. That is a beautiful comment Jen. I know I’m striving to not be so impatient for my questions and doubts to resolve. I’m hoping I’ll finally recognize the beauty in the dissonance when things resolve.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    You sir are a (Tallis) scholar and a gentleman.

%d bloggers like this: