28. Forty voices in an eight-sided room
October 4th, 2020

Thomas Tallis - Spem in alium
(File under: classical music, art, architecture, polyphony)

Watch: youtu.be/MprnnW-ruz8?t=175

Spem in alium is a 16th century Renaissance motet by the English composer Thomas Tallis, written for forty voices, or eight choirs of five—soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. It’s a work of choral polyphony, with all forty vocalists weaving in and out of each other to create intricate, multi-layered harmonies that totally defy any sort of elaborate metaphor I could apply to them. In fact, writing about Spem in alium feels hopeless—it’s a staggering piece of music both emotionally and technically, at once sculptural and ethereal. Nothing feels more like dancing about architecture than trying to do it justice with words in an email. Worth a try, though.

I first discovered Spem in alium when I walked into a room at the MoMA containing Janet Cardiff’s The 40-Part Motet. Cardiff’s installation uses a recording of Tallis’ piece performed by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, but plays it through 40 individual speakers arranged in a circle pointing inwards. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience with music quite like it. Sit in the centre of the circle and you feel like you’re floating. Walk around the perimeter of the circle and you can pick up on all the nuances of the individual vocalists, the steady river of sibilance and the collective intake of forty breaths. I stayed in that room for at least 90 minutes, I think. I remember catching a stranger’s eye, both of us a little teary, both of us smiling and nodding at the other in consolation.

I’ve been thinking about Spem in alium this week as one of my oldest friends sent me this recent performance by the ORA Singers in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. This lead me to this fascinating video by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, which explains that Tallis’ piece may have been commissioned for a performance in an octagonal room at a Tudor palace. This, in combination with the popularity of the Venetian polychoral style in the 16th century (which placed choirs in the lofts of Basilica di San Marco facing inwards towards the congregation) may explain the scale and arrangement of Spem in alium. He also makes a compelling case about the piece’s involvement with a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, which is just the cherry on an already generously decorated cake.

This year is the 450th anniversary of Spem in alium, which may explain the recent abundance of related content. There’s Mäntyjärvi’s video, this fascinating visualisation of the piece, and the requisite but no less beautiful socially distanced rendition performed by students at The King’s School in Canterbury. Find 10 spare minutes and a pair of headphones—you won’t regret it.

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