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Spem in alium

40vv 8x SATBarB
author of text
Respond at Matins on Sundays, History of Judith, cf Judith 8: 19, 6: 15

eight choirs of SATBB
In 1567 the Italian composer and nobleman Alessandro Striggio visited the English court, where he was hospitably received by Queen Elizabeth. He brought with him a copy of his recently written 40-voice motet Ecce beatam lucem, which he had shown around other European courts that year. No one knows whether Striggio met Tallis on this visit, but it would not have been unnatural if the Queen had arranged for her musical guest to meet the most senior and revered of the English court composers, the man best able to appreciate Striggio’s extraordinary composition. Again, no one knows for certain whether Tallis’s Spem in alium was written in response to Ecce beatam lucem, but if it was not, there must have been some other exceptional reason for Tallis to write the work that was unlike anything else he had ever written before, both in scale, resources, and sheer sound, the work that stands as his greatest masterpiece. A possible occasion suggested for the first performance was Queen Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday in 1573. This allows for a politically apposite allegorical interpretation of the rarely set Latin text, which occurs in the Sarum rite as a respond to readings from the Book of Judith: Judith, the brave Israelite woman (= Queen Elizabeth) beguiles the commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s armies, Holofernes (= Philip of Spain) and cuts off his head. This interpretation, put forward by the scholar Paul Doe, is not far-fetched: Renaissance artists were only too capable of flattering their patrons in this way. Another theory connects Tallis’s motet with Thomas Howard; the Catholic nobleman executed for treason in 1572: an anecdote recorded some years later tells of a performance of Spem in alium in Arundel House, London home of his father-in-law, the Earl of Arundel. According to this account, Howard commissioned Tallis to write the motet to see whether an English composer could match Striggio’s achievement; Tallis was judged to have so far surpassed the Italian that Howard took off the gold chain from around his neck and immediately put it round Tallis’s neck as a gift. He was right: Striggio’s motet is, frankly, a little pedestrian and monotonously chordal, as if the composer’s imagination was constrained by the very size of his forces. Tallis’s imagination in Spem in alium takes wing, transporting the listener into a sound-world as fantastical and undreamt-of now (even with our galaxy of electronic resources) as it was then. His technique combines three kinds of choral writing: the freely interweaving counterpoint that was his normal means of expression; antiphonal exchanges in block harmony (as when the phrase ‘Domine Deus’ is bounced around from choir to choir); and carefully judged moments of thrilling choral climax when all forty voices are heard together. As with all true polyphonic writing, each of the forty voices has its own distinct role, none subordinate to the others; and it should be noted that there are moments of expressive individuality and even intimacy in the writing. Listen especially to the mystically lovely polyphonic flowerings that follow immediately after the motet’s several great massed outbursts of sound.

from notes by John Rutter © 1994


A banquet of voices
CSCD525Download only
Renaissance Giants
CDGIM2072CDs for the price of 1
Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 1
GIMBX301Boxed set (at a special price) — Download only
Striggio & Tallis: Supersize Polyphony
Studio Master: SIGCD560Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Tallis: Spem in alium
Tallis: Spem in alium & other choral works
Tallis: Spem in alium & other sacred music
Studio Master: CDA68156Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Tallis: The Complete Works, Vol. 7
SIGCD029Download only
Tallis: The Tallis Scholars sing Thomas Tallis
CDGIM2032CDs for the price of 1


Track 11 on CDA66400 [11'04]
Track 4 on CDA68156 [10'22]
Track 1 on CDGIM006 [9'53]
Track 1 on CDGIM203 CD1 [9'53] 2CDs for the price of 1
Track 1 on CDGIM207 CD1 [9'58] 2CDs for the price of 1
Track 5 on CSCD525 [9'45] Download only
Track 1 on GIMBX301 CD2 [9'53] Boxed set (at a special price) — Download only
Track 16 on SIGCD029 [10'03] Download only
Track 14 on SIGCD560 [8'37] Download only

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