Spem in alium
The early history of the work is obscure. It is listed in a catalogue of the library at Nonsuch Palace made in 1596 as "a song of fortie partes, made by Mr. Tallys." The earliest surviving manuscripts are those prepared in 1610 for the investiture of Henry Frederick, the son of James I, as Prince of Wales.
A 1611 letter written by the law student Thomas Wateridge contains the following anecdote:
In Queen Elizabeth's time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.
Allowing the "30" to be a mistake, the Italian song referred to is either the 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem or the 40-60 voice mass Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, both by Alessandro Striggio, who is known to have visited London in June 1567 after a trip through Europe during which he arranged other performances of Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno.
This account is consistent with the catalogue entry at Nonsuch Palace: Arundel House was the London home of Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel; Nonsuch Palace was his country residence. Nonsuch possessed an octagonal banqueting hall, which in turn had four ﬁrst-ﬂoor balconies: it can be speculated that Tallis designed the music to be sung not only in the round, but with four of the eight five-part choirs singing from the balconies.
The Duke of the letter is thought to be Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and if so (and if the anecdote is trustworthy) the Duke's execution in 1572 gives a latest date for the composition of the work. Other historians, doubting the anecdote, have suggested that the first performance was on the occasion of Elizabeth's fortieth birthday in 1573. Other dates have been suggested, including the possibility that it was composed years earlier for Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's predecessor.
An early score of the work currently resides at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where it is part of an exhibition detailing 1000 years of British choral music.
The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). It is most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally all voices join for the culmination of the work. Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its fairly simple harmonic framework, allowing for an astonishing number of individual musical ideas to be sung during its ten-to-twelve minute performance time. The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mess, the work is continually presenting new ideas.
The work is not often performed, as it requires at least forty singers capable of meeting its technical demands. The discipline that comes with performing the masterpiece is highlighted in the importance of the conductor and the performers alike. Whilst performers are distributed throughout a venue, the conductor becomes truly the hub for the piece throughout, as often there is little or no visibility between the performers, and a large venue will present acoustical challenges, not regarded with traditional choirs co-located.
The original Latin text of the motet is from a response (at Matins, for the 3rd Lesson, during the V week of September), in the Sarum Rite, adapted from the Book of Judith. Today the response appears in the Divine Office of the Latin rite in the Office of Readings (formerly called Matins) following the first lesson on Tuesday of the 29th Week of the Year.
- Spem in alium nunquam habui
- Praeter in te, Deus Israel
- Qui irasceris et propitius eris
- et omnia peccata hominum
- in tribulatione dimittis
- Domine Deus
- Creator caeli et terrae
- respice humilitatem nostram
There is no early manuscript source giving the underlay for the Latin text: the 1610 copies give the underlay for the English contrafactum "Sing and glorify" (see below), with the Latin words given at the bottom.
- I have never put my hope in any other
- but in You, O God of Israel
- who can show both anger and graciousness,
- and who absolves all the sins
- of suffering man
- Lord God,
- Creator of Heaven and Earth
- be mindful of our lowliness
Sung at the 1610 investiture of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.
- Sing and glorify heaven's high Majesty,
- Author of this blessed harmony;
- Sound divine praises
- With melodious graces;
- This is the day, holy day, happy day,
- For ever give it greeting, Love and joy
- heart and voice meeting:
- Live Henry princely and mighty,
- Harry live in thy creation happy.
Recordings include those by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral; the Tallis Scholars, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the Oxford Camerata; the Choirs of King's and St John's Colleges, Cambridge; The Sixteen; The Clerkes of Oxenford; Cantillation; Huelgas Ensemble; Philip Cave's Magnificat; and, most recently (2006), by the British male a cappella group, the King's Singers. This recording is particularly noteworthy, since the group is composed of just six men: all forty parts are performed by these six via multitracking. The Kronos Quartet has also recorded an instrumental version of the motet on their album Black Angels. Cellist Peter Gregson has also multitracked Spem in Alium, performing all 40 parts on one cello.
Another version of this motet is featured in Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet (2001), an exhibition which is part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and of Inhotim in Brumadinho, Brazil. The exhibit is set in the Rideau Street Chapel, which is the salvaged interior of a demolished convent chapel that is now in permanent display at the National Gallery. Forty speakers are set around the Chapel, each one featuring a single voice of the forty-part choir. The result is a highly enhanced polyphonic effect, as visitors may hear each individual voice through its corresponding speaker, or listen to the voices of the entire choir blending in together with varying intensities, as one moves around the Chapel.
On 10 June 2006, the BBC asked for 1,000 singers to meet, rehearse and perform the piece in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester for what was almost certainly the largest performance of the piece in history. On that day, over 700 singers attended, most of whom had never sung the piece before. A programme following the day's events was broadcast on BBC Four on December 9, 2006.[not in citation given][not in citation given]
Spem in alium features prominently in the Poliakoff drama, Gideon's Daughter. It also accompanies the film Touching the Void, and reaches a climax when Yates and Simpson reach the summit of the mountain.
Tallis' Spem in alium has also inspired several modern composers to write 40-part choral works, for example Giles Swayne's The Silent Land (1998), Robert Hanson's And There Shall Be No Night There (2002), Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's Tentatio (2006) and Peter McGarr's Love You Big as the Sky (2007). A London-based choral festival, the Tallis Festival, inspired by Spem in alium, commissioned both Mäntyjärvi and McGarr to compose in this genre.
- Davitt Moroney, "Alessandro Striggio's Mass in Forty and Sixty Parts". Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 60 No. 1., pp. 1–69. Spring 2007. ISSN 0003-0139.
- Cole, Suzanne (2008). Thomas Tallis and his music in Victorian England. Boydell. p. 97. ISBN 978-1-84383-380-2.
- Moroney, p. 28-33
- Thomas Kahlcke, in sleevenotes to "The Tallis Scholars: Best of the Renaissance" (Philips 1999)
- George Steel (March 2002). "The Story of Spem in alium". Andante. Archived from the original on April 26, 2009.
- "People's Chorus". BBC.
- "Programme info". BBC.
- "The People's Chorus". BBC.
- Complete performance by the Tallis Scholars, followed by 10-minute discussion on BBC Radio 3 (28 October 2007) [RTP stream metadata; requires compatible player]
- Choral Public Domain Library (with further discussion of the work, as well as complete score and singer's editions for each of the eight choirs, available for free legal download).
- Notes by Peter Phillips for the Tallis Scholars recording
- Notes by Jeremy Summerly for the Oxford Camerata recording
- The Early Music Show
- Brighton Consort's MIDI Set offers midi files of each choir and each part within each choir for practice.
- Straight into the charts... a hit from 1568.