In the February issue of Building a Library we explore Tallis’s Lamentations. Here, we introduce you to Tallis’s other renowned choral work, the beautiful Spem in Alium.
Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium was composed in c1570 and is scored for 40 voices. It is arranged for eight choirs with five voices in each. Tallis set the text of the Matins response Spem in alium and it is likely that he designed it to be heard ‘in the round’, with the audience seated within a circle of singers. Beginning with a single voice, the composer deploys as many effects as he can, displaying a mastery of counterpoint and scoring all 40 voices together at four key moments.
According to the notebook of a London law student, Thomas Wateridge (writing in 1611), a song was ‘sent into England of 30 parts’ from Italy. He recalls that a music-loving duke ‘asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe’. The nobleman is thought to be Thomas Howard, the Fourth Duke of Norfolk. Wateridge notes how Tallis took up the challenge. ‘Tallice…would undertake ye Matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes…’.
The Italian work that inspired Tallis is likely to have been Striggio’s 40-part motet or mass. The two composers probably met each other in London in 1567 when Striggio was on a European tour with this work.
It is unclear when the first performance took place. It may have been at London’s Arundel House, after the Duke of Norfolk’s release from prison in 1570, or maybe in the octagonal hall of Nonsuch Palace in Surrey.
The work was used for the 1610 investiture of Henry Frederick, the Prince of Wales, and its enduring popularity has led to landmark recordings including one by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, under David Willcocks in 1965.
This article appeared in the November 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.