Thomas Tallis: Tallis – Spem in alium

Spem in Alium first burst into my brain some 30 years ago. Someone in Britain made a depressing short film about a middle aged man, whose wife dies and sad to be alone, decides to commit suicide.  He checks into a hotel intending to down some booze and pills.  He’s interrupted by a beautiful blonde woman who is also depressed and is going to commit suicide.  The man tells the woman she must live, that life is too precious, and convinces her not to kill herself.  That does the trick.  Happy with himself that he did this life affirming act, he goes back into the room and drinks the liquor and pops the tablets.  The camera pulls away showing him lying there, a serene look on his face, with Spem in Alium playing welling up.

Even though as a young man discovering new works of classical music, I used to have elaborate fantasies of running through fields or meeting some beautiful woman, these days I cringe whenever I see someone’s attempt to paint a visual picture of a work of music.  Stravinsky hated this as well, but that’s because Walt Disney used The Rites of Spring in Fantasia and did not pay the composer any royalties.

When I hear Spem in Alium, the movie still flashes briefly before my mind’s eye, but I quick dispel it picturing instead a choir of singers.

I once heard a vapid classical music host on a Washington, DC, radio station describe Spem in Alium as “a big, big piece of work.”  I wonder if he loves Wagner’s operas for the same reason.

It is an eight-voice motet, which is often performed by 5 sets of 8 voices making up a choir of 40 voices. It was reportedly composed for the first birthday of Queen Elizabeth the First, but according to Wikipedia, there’s a letter from 1611 that describes its composition:

“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.”

While searching for some recordings of it to share with you, I see that Spem was used for the soundtrack to “50 Shades of Gray,” a film about Bondage.  Some people just can’t leave well enough alone.

Below are some different recordings including a non-choral one by the Kronos Quartet.  I’d be interested in hearing which you like the best.

Harry Christophers

 

Tallis Scholars

 

Taverner Choir: Alan Wilson, Taverner Choir, Andrew Parrott, Bud Owens, Paul Nicholson

 

Kronos Quartet

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

3 Responses to Thomas Tallis: Tallis – Spem in alium

  1. kvennarad says:

    I enjoyed listening to all of them, as each brought a different sound-sculpture to me. I think the Kronos took us furthest away from Tallis’s vision, but at the same time it gives an opportunity to listen to it as pure music, shorn of a philosophical overlay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • kurtnemes says:

      I really like the Taverner version. There is something about the original version — male voice only — which is haunting. Not that I advocate going back to the practice of castrati.

      Like

  2. I enjoyed all of the versions. Beautiful.

    Like

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