Tallis’s lifetime saw the Reformation in all its guises – the initial split with Rome, the Marian restoration, and ultimately the Elizabethan settlement. Born a Catholic, Tallis remained a member of the “Old Faith”, but escaped persecution. He was accomplished at writing for both the Catholic and Protestant liturgies, and became the principal composer of the new Church of England.
During the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) choral music had to be intelligible: short and concise, in English, largely homophonic, with clear syllabic word-setting – “to each syllable a plain and distinct note”. If Ye Love Me is an early English anthem from this time, and whilst the word-setting is predominantly syllabic, Tallis only manages to stick to homophony for the first 4 bars, after which imitative counterpoint takes over. The formal hallmarks of the early anthem are nevertheless there: a lengthy repeated final section gives the piece a typical ABB structure.
Jesus promises his disciples that he will pray to God to send the Holy Spirit down to dwell with them, and Tallis’s music appropriately reflects the optimistic nature of the text.