Spem in Alium
At the time of its composition, Spem in Alium was without doubt the greatest musical achievement of its time. In many repects it remains unsurpassed.
The text is a respond from Sunday Matins during the reading of the history of Judith and quite why it was chosen is not apparent. Clearly Spem in alium is an occasional piece, presumably written for a great state occasion, and perhaps the most likely was the fortieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth in 1573. Tallis was well practised in the Elizabethan art of diplomacy, and to a cultured and music-loving queen a perfectly crafted 40 part motet would have been a most acceptable birthday gift!
The singers are grouped into eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass) and were probably intended to stand in a horse-shoe shape. The piece begins with a single voice from the first choir and gradually the voices enter in imitation and the sound moves around the line from choir one to choir eight. During the fortieth breve, all forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the process happens in reverse with the sound moving back from choir eight to choir one.
After another brief full section the choirs sing in pairs alternately throwing the sound across the space between them until finally all voices join for a full culmination to the work.
An interesting feature of the piece is that the total length of Spem in Alium is 69 longs. This happens to be the same number that is arrived at by taking Tallis' name, ascribing each of the letters of the latin alphabet a number—A=1, B=2 etc.—and summing the values. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to imagine that Tallis has signed his greatest, and perhaps greatest work in a way that ensures he is fully bound up with his creation for perpetuity.
BL Edgerton 3512
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