Spem in alium

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

This entry was posted in Arts, History. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Spem in alium

  1. alfy says:

    Congratulations, Jim, on this post. I am familiar with “Spem in allium” as I have an LP record of the piece, but I have only heard it once in live performance, at “Christ the Cornerstone” in Milton Keynes, some years ago. One of the advantages of the live performance, is that the eight choirs are not together but sited in different parts of the building at different levels. The process of blending together these separated sections is a marvel in itself.
    There was no explanation in this post, but I guess that the five singers were recording themselves as eight different choirs with different parts, and then they were combined for the final achievement. Not having any expertise in music, I find the whole process in this piece to be remakable. I think it has been describe as “a delicate filigree” as one hears the different choirs singing slightly different tunes, apparently in competition with each other but finally coming together harmoniously.
    It appeared that most of the voices were counter-tenors or male altos, and I would have liked some information on this, as well as the names of the five excellent musicians who made this wonderful piece for us.
    Finally, it has been suggested that the Latin title, “Spem in allium”, always difficult to render into simple English, could be the basis for a new gastronomic delight, as “Spam in Allium” (Allium is the scientific name for garlic.)

    • Deskarati says:

      Thanks for that Alfy, I have to admit that I was unaware of Spem in Allium until recently, but it is a very interesting piece indeed.
      The King Singers on the other hand I have known most of my life as they were a favourite of my father and we had their albums at home. Here is a short extract from their website:

      Most people know that today’s King’s Singers were young boys or merely a glint in their Father’s eyes when the group was founded. Since 1968 there have been just twenty-four members of the group – a very low turnover – helping maintain the wonderful sense of stability and belonging that are a King’s Singer’s good fortune. At concerts and in interviews we are often asked about the beginnings of this great British institution. How did the group start? Why did you decide to specialise in “everything”? Why are you called the “King’s Singers”? The group takes its name from King’s College Cambridge, where Martin Lane, Al Hume, Alastair Thompson, Richard Salter, Simon Carrington and Brian Kay were choral scholars. This was (and is) a busy life. As well as reading for a university degree, choral scholars sing six days a week in the college chapel, and often perform at dinners and balls in and around Cambridge. Using the variety in repertoire found in their student days – from a medieval Magnificat in chapel to a madrigal, glee, part song or pop song arrangement away from chapel, the King’s Singers were to go on to build a successful career. Nothing that could be sung in 6 parts was ignored.

  2. Naan Glozi says:

    Spam in garlic – Mmmmm Yummy!

  3. Steve B says:

    I have just purchased a recording of this wonderful piece, and am somewhat disconcerted to find that it is featured in Fifty Shades of Grey!

Comments are closed.