A few months ago I went to pull up a recording of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, his famous 40 part motet written for 8 5-part choirs. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and it was the kind of day that called for some later Tallis. The recording that came up first in the search results on Spotify made me groan. There was a quote on the cover by E.L. James, author of the 50 Shades series about how that recording of the Tallis scholars was sublime and perfect. That is just so wrong, on so many levels.
Having been introduced to the work of Anais Nin when I was 23, especially her journals, I am a bit of a snob when it comes to erotica. I adore Anais Nin. Wonderful erotica, like any kind of fantasy writing, has a power to transport the reader. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a giant beef with 50 Shades. I absolutely hate the fact that it has taken over erotica, and is what many people think of now when they think about erotic writing. It has taken something incredibly personal and special, and trivialized it with terrible prose, trite imagery, and even worse for the anti-feminist movement that seems to be spreading like a bad virus through the ranks of young women today (witness Meghan Trainor) it glorifies violence against women.
So yeah, I pretty much hate this whole 50 Shades nonsense.
A little piece of me died when I saw that quote on the album from E.L.James. On the one hand, I felt like I should be thrilled that more people would discover Tallis’ music, and I should quit being such a snob about it. On the other, there’s something very wrong in my world when a piece of music that is so close to the divine, that has brought countless numbers of people closer to the great chi of the universe (which is how I like to think about God) for 500 years, somehow needs to be curated and recommended by an author who got her start writing Twilight fan fiction (another great example of a heroine I would never want my daughter to emulate).
With that rant finished, let me tell you about Thomas Tallis, and this great work of genius. Tallis himself was born in 1510, and was clever enough to thrive under four monarchs, through the most turbulent religious changes in English history. In fact, as the Protestants became more powerful under the reign of Edward VI, music was one of their targets. Afraid of anything smelling of the Papacy, against which the Protestants were fighting, the grand polyphonic pieces of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods were suspect. Tallis himself had to do a bit of an about-turn, and his wonderful piece, If Ye Love Me is an example of his flexibility and agility. He went from writing Latin masses to English anthems where it was suggested that each note should just have one syllable so that it could be clearly understood by the parish (one of the great tenants of Protestantism, with which I fully agree, was the idea that people should be able to read and understand the Word of God themselves, without it having to be translated by a priest, with his own human prejudices and slants).
After Edward died young and the Catholic Mary brought back the Mass and tried to reconcile with Rome, Tallis had to do another quick turnaround. His music became better for all of his polyphonic gymnastics. The idea of word painting with music began to take off as composers became accustomed to writing in their own language, with all of the opportunities that opened up. By the time Elizabeth came to the throne, with her love of the ceremony of the Catholic church paired with her belief in the Protestant tenants, Tallis himself was poised to enter a period of creative productivity that would see his great masterpiece, Spem in Alium among his accomplishments.
Written for 40 voices (8 5-part choirs) he intricately weaves together these individual lines into this soaring piece of music that praises God.
- 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
- (English Translation)
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
40 voices singing those words, each with their own individual part, joining together in this giant collection of voices… it’s awe-inspiring and moving to hear, and it makes you grateful to live on a planet where this kind of music can be created. It calls me to be the kind of person who deserves this kind of musical experience.
Tallis himself may have been sympathetic to the Catholic cause, similarly to Byrd. And Spem in Alium, written in Latin, would be in the genre of the kind of music that the Catholics missed so much. It was likely composed out of professional rivalry. The Italian composer and diplomat Alessandro Striggio wrote a 40 part motet that was performed in 1567, and Tallis probably would have watched the performance. There is a story from a contemporary diary where a Duke (possibly the Duke of Norfolk who wanted to marry Mary Queen of Scots and have her take over the throne from Elizabeth) threw down the gauntlet asking whether an Englishman could write as well. Tallis took the challenge on. From the Telegraph: “Simply managing 40 independent parts so that they sound well and don’t tread on each other’s toes is hard enough. But Tallis goes beyond simply managing. He uses his eight five-voice choirs in every conceivable combination, sometimes flowing into each other, sometimes set against each other, and saves the glorious 40-voice sound for dramatic high points.”
Tallis first debuted the piece for Elizabeth I’s birthday in Nonsuch Palace. Nonsuch was Henry VIII’s grand building project after the death of his third wife, Jane Seymore, of fever post-delivery of his one son. The name meant that there was no other such palace in the world that was on par with the beauty of this particular place. Nonsuch survived until the late 17th century, though it fell in and out of royal hands. In 1556 Mary sold it to Henry FitzAlan, the 19th Earl of Arundal, who completed the building projects, and then returned it to royal hands in the 1590’s. Eventually Charles II gave it to his mistress, Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine. in 1670. But she had it pulled down in 1682-3 to sell the building materials to pay for gambling debts. A poetic end for a palace created out of the grief of a tyrant, I suppose.
But back to Tallis and Spem. Janet Cardiff, an audio installation artist (I didn’t know such a thing existed) born in 1957 created a piece of work in 2000 where she gave each singer a microphone and placed speakers strategically through a hall so that listeners could listen to individual singers, and start to see the relationship between each part, and the lines that each singer has. The 40 Part Motet has been installed throughout the world, including in the Cloisters in New York, an art museum and incredibly special place at the tip of Manhattan. The artist wrote, “I placed the speakers around the room in an oval so that the listener would be able to really feel the sculptural construction of the piece by Tallis. You can hear the sound move from one choir to another, jumping back and forth, echoing each other and then experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you when all of the singers are singing.” While the video on the website surely doesn’t do it justice, you can definitely pick out individual voices, and start to hear the lines and how they are woven together.
Tallis himself lived until the ripe old age of nearly 75 – ancient by Tudor standards. The body of work that he put out lives on – he was one of the first composers to write for the English church, and his settings of the liturgical texts are still sung in services today. But there is very little that can top Spem in Alium as a listener.