Tallis Spem in alium

An altogether fascinating experiment throws intriguing light on a familiar work

Author: 
mberry

Tallis Spem in alium

  • Spem in alium
  • Sing and glorify heaven's high majesty

Recording Tallis’s famous 40-part motet is probably one of every choir’s most cherished ambitions. I can remember what was possibly the first performance of it in modern times, having also sung alto in the fifth choir in King’s in the 1930s in a Cambridge University Musical Society concert, under the baton of Boris Ord. In the 1960s the Society made both mono and stereo recordings under David Willcocks. In 1973 the Clerkes of Oxenford, under the leadership of David Wulstan, demonstrated in their recording this conductor’s theory that Tudor pitch was to be interpreted a minor third higher than is usual today, with the angelic sound of high sopranos performing ethereally on top B flats. That recording has been remastered and made available to 21st century listeners by EMI’s Classics for Pleasure. In June 1997 another group of 40 singers, all names known to lovers of English 16th-century music, came together as a new ensemble, Magnificat, under Philip Cave, to make a high definition digital recording.

Chapelle du Roi’s present recording under Alistair Dixon is of historic as well as musical interest. I cannot recall ever having heard a performance of the contrafactum (the practice of borrowing a song from one sphere and making it suitable for use in another by the substitution of words) let alone both versions, the Latin Spem in alium and the English Sing and glorify presented side by side, by the same 40 singers. This naturally invites comparison, not only with existing recordings of Spem in alium, but also of the motet itself and its contrafactum.

The motet owes its existence to an invitation by the Duke of Norfolk for the ageing Tallis to compose an answer to Striggio’s 40-part Ecce beatam lucem. The English contrafactum was probably produced for the investiture, in 1610, of James I’s elder son, Henry, as Prince of Wales. We know that Tallis himself was not averse to using the same material for completely different purposes. But here the question of suitability by whoever made the contrafactum cannot be avoided. Something joyfully heroic would surely be required for such an occasion. Yet Spem in alium is a cry of supplication, marvellously set by the composer.

Chapelle du Roi uncover the composer’s ingenuity at each point of the text: the opening succession of entries across the eight choirs in both directions, culminating in the full choir’s acknowledgement of man’s sinfulness, but his firm hope in God’s mercy, then choir against choir, antiphonally: ‘Domine Deus’, ‘creator caeli et terrae’ – and then the two moments of complete silence before ‘Respice’.

The choir has ordered its dynamics with skill, ending on a fervent note of imploration. For their rendering of the English Coronation motet their slightly faster tempo seems fitting, but the cry of ‘Henry’ after the dramatic pause sounds almost ludicrous. Can this deeply felt music possibly serve as a passé-partout for any old text? A fascinating experiment by the choir, who expose the contrafactum for what it really is!

By contrast, the Latin text for which the music was created and so powerfully expressed by Tallis, is very naturally the one that grips our attention and fires our emotions. If asked which of all these recordings succeeds best, it is the one by Magnificat that still, to my ears, demonstrates most assuredly and with clarity the detail and the impact of this amazing music. To listen to that recording is to find yourself, as it were, within the score, moving from part to part, crossing over from one group of choirs to another, and then finally responding to the overwhelming sound of the full chorus of 40 voices, each with its own individuality.

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