The story of ‘Spem in Alium’, a 40 parts motet by Thomas Tallis

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Tallis Spem in aliumIn 1567, the city of London welcomed the visiting Italian musician and nobleman Alessandro Striggio. He stunned the London musical scene with a performance of his motet Ecce Beatam Lucem, written for the utterly extravagant ensemble of 40 voice parts. This rich and unique sonic world was met with great enthusiasm in London, as it had been in other European courts treated to the same piece earlier in the year. But England apparently offered a musical counterchallenge.

Legend credits two of England’s leading Catholic noblemen – Thomas Howard, the fourth Duke of Norfolk, and Henry Fitzalan, the twelfth Earl of Arundel – with issuing a commission to the most senior and revered English composer of the day to match Striggio’s accomplishment. And that composer, Thomas Tallis, presented England with Spem in alium. Tallis chose an uncommon Sarum Rite text from the Book of Judith; perhaps in intended flattery to his patron, Queen Elizabeth, by comparing her to the heroic woman who saved the Israelites by killing of the chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s army. This has led some commentators to suggest Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday (1573) as an appropriate date of first composition. A much later anecdote (researched by Denis Stevens) relates the Duke of Norfolk’s commission and a first performance at Long Gallery in the London home of the Earl of Arundel, possibly in 1571. This story imagines the Duke of Norfolk placing a gold chain upon Tallis’ neck in recognition of his achievement.

One other early performance venue has been suggested: the octagonal banqueting hall of Arundel Castle, providing a perfect architectural disposition for Tallis’ octo-choral scoring. Tallis certainly chose his number of voices (40) and his key (G major) in response to Striggio‘s motet; the number 40 is further emphasized in the piece by the first arrival of all voices — on the fortieth measure. But whereas Striggio’s Ecce beatam lucem uses a shifting kaleidoscope of vocal textures, Tallis clearly delineates his 40 voices in eight choirs of five voices each. The opening two phrases pass the melodic motifs carefully and relentlessly in imitation through all eight choirs, until the full power and majesty of the united voices arrive together on the name of the “God in Whom Israel trusts.” Again, through the center of the motet, imitation wafts upward through six choirs, before a full contrapuntal response to the text for the “sins of all.” A new, purer polychoral texture emerges as various choirs echo one another’s block harmonies on the invocation “Domine Deus, creator coeli et terrae,” and a truly arresting A major chord (on “respice”) in all 40 voices demands that God consider our supplication. A second, thrilling, unison chord leads to a fantastically detailed contrapuntal tapestry in all voices until the end.

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