Spem in alium (Latin for “Hope in any other”) is a 40-part Renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis, composed in c. 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each, widely considered to be the greatest piece of English early music. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has described it as “A crowning glory of our civilisation”. Along with Tallis’ Lamentations, H. B Collins describes it in Music and Letters as Tallis’ “crowning achievement”.
The early history of the work is obscure. It is listed in a catalogue of the library at Nonsuch Palace made in 1596 as “a song of fortie partes, made by Mr. Tallys.” The earliest surviving manuscripts are those prepared in 1610 for the investiture of Henry Frederick, the son of James I, as Prince of Wales.
A 1611 letter written by the law student Thomas Wateridge contains the following anecdote:
In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.
Allowing the “30” to be a mistake, the Italian song referred to is either the 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem or the 40–60-voice mass Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, both by Alessandro Striggio, who is known to have visited London in June 1567 after a trip through Europe during which he arranged other performances of Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno.
This account is consistent with the catalogue entry at Nonsuch Palace: Arundel House was the London home of Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel; Nonsuch Palace was his country residence. Nonsuch possessed an octagonal banqueting hall, which in turn had four ﬁrst-ﬂoor balconies: it can be speculated that Tallis designed the music to be sung not only in the round, but with four of the eight five-part choirs singing from the balconies.
The Duke of the letter is thought to be Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and if so (and if the anecdote is trustworthy) the Duke’s execution in 1572 gives a latest date for the composition of the work. Other historians, doubting the anecdote, have suggested that the first performance was on the occasion of Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday in 1573. Other dates have been suggested, including the possibility that it was composed years earlier for Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s predecessor. Via Spem in alium