Though it seems that like his colleague William Byrd Thomas Tallis remained at heart a Catholic, he cheerfully contributed music to the growing vernacular liturgy in Reformation England. He wrote -- or adapted from his own Latin motets -- anthems for the English service and may have been one of the first musicians to do so; he also gave the Anglican liturgy three complete, and several partial settings of the Communion Service and Evening Prayer. His most unassuming Anglican music, however, happens to be some of the most far-reaching in audience: the nine Psalm Tunes he wrote for the 1567 publication of The whole psalter translated into English metre. This John Day anthology contained new English-verse translations of the Psalms by the Right Reverend Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 to 1575, and the first consecrated Anglican in the post. Tallis provided four-voiced musical harmonizations for eight of the Psalms, as well as a Come, Holy Ghost. The latter piece, better known as Tallis' Ordinal, has been adapted into generations of Protestant hymnals of every stripe, and one of the eight Psalm tunes became the subject of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
The poetical Archbishop himself offers the best summation of Tallis' music for these Psalms. He included a versified inventory of Tallis' Psalm Tunes: "The first is meek, devout to see/The second sad, in majesty/The third doth rage, and roughly brayeth/The fourth doth fawn, and flattery playeth...." And indeed, each of the eight Psalms contains its own character: the first (Psalm 1, "Blessed is the man") characterizes the righteous and devout Christian, the second (Psalm 68, "Let God arise") calls for majestic victory, the third (Psalm 2, "Why do the people rage") sounds a battle cry, and so on. Tallis' music, as well, in all its simplicity, reflects something of these distinct characters. The first adopts a reverent minor mode, changing abruptly to major when discussing God's law, while the second takes a more direct rhythmic cast in duple meter. The third, the famous subject for Vaughan Williams' Fantasia, constantly oscillates between alternate chords, as if the issue of a battle remained eternally in doubt. Perhaps most poignantly, the fifth Tune, whose Psalm text (Ps. 51) compares the thirsty deer to the longing human soul, stretches and delays each cadence such that even within an extremely simple musical setting, the tone matches the pathos of the text.