It was this very idiosyncracy which permitted musical experiment of a bold nature. Liturgical function in setting texts from the Catholic rite could be overlooked in the interests of through-composition, for example, or the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for the reformed service of Evensong could actually be set in Latin. The renowned Spem in alium is a perfect example of the former technique, being liturgically a responsory from the Historia Iudith. The repeating structure of the responsory is entirely ignored, and no reference is made to its chant melody. What Tallis does is to use the text and make it into a through-composed motet, but a motet of an extraordinary kind. It is arguable that this piece in forty parts represents the epitome of choral writing in England in the sixteenth century (and not only the sixteenth): technically it is a balance between dense contrapuntal writing and homophonic declamation, exploiting every possible combination of effects available from the forty voice parts with dazzling virtuosity. It is, of course, also much more than that. It is, by turns, humble and proud, supplicatory and majestic, and always confident in its appeal to the Creator. The occasion for its composition has not been precisely identified. It may have been (among other possibilities) the fortieth birthday of either Queen Mary in 1556 or Queen Elizabeth in 1573; or possibly a piece to rival Alessandro Striggio’s own forty-part Ecce beatam lucem.
from notes by Ivan Moody © 1989