Tallis’ Virtual Voice is a project conceived and sponsored by the Thomas Tallis Society centred around Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in alium. It comprises my multitrack recording of the work, a comprehensive performance resource for the piece, and a radical new edition by Hugh Keyte.
Nigel Press, chairman of TTS, approached me in April 2020, having heard my multitrack recording of Pearsall’s Lay a garland. The idea of recording Spem in alium seemed absurd at first. Nevertheless, three months later my 40-part recording was complete.
The 40-part motet
Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis (1505–85) is the Mount Everest of a cappella choral music. Interestingly, the COVID lockdown was rather a prolific time for recordings of Spem in alium. Indeed, mine was not even the first multitrack recording of it to come out of 2020. For many, Spem represents everything that COVID took away. It requires a room full of singers standing, probably, quite close together. Often it involves several choirs meeting together and joining forces, socialising as well as singing. Crucially, it is a piece about hope, which was all too easy to lose in 2020. The production of so many recordings of this motet during lockdown was no coincidence. Choral singers across the world, from Australia to Princeton to London, sang Spem as an act of defiance toward the pandemic—to prove that our art and our community are immutable. By celebrating Spem in this way, we have tried to turn despair into hope.
Spem in alium nunquam habui
præter in te, Deus Israël,
qui irasceris et propitius eris,
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis.
Domine Deus, Creator cæli et terræ,
respice ad humilitatem nostram.
I have never put my hope
in any other but in You, God of Israel,
who will be angry and yet become again gracious,
and who forgives all the sins of man in suffering.
Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth,
look upon our lowliness.
Spem in alium is at once highly mathematical in its construction and visceral in its impact. Tallis’ composition appears to have been guided by numbers and proportions on several levels. The number 40 of course carries biblical significance, generally measuring a period of testing or tribulation. In this motet, the 40 voices enter in a cascading motion. Then in the 40th bar, they all sing at once for the first time. The other number bearing particular significance in this motet is 69. This is Tallis’ numerological ‘signature’—where A=1, B=2... Z=25 (I and J are considered the same letter), T+A+L+L+I+S=69. Spem in alium is 138 bars long—two lengths of 69. At the halfway point between them is the second instance of all forty parts singing together, to the words ‘et omnia’. Peter Gritton’s talk on Spem in alium offers some other enlightening remarks about the mathematics of the work. Just as the great Renaissance architects believed in the absolute sanctity of proportion in their work, so too did Tallis in Spem in alium.
Within this highly organised framework, Tallis does not fail to achieve extraordinary emotional power. Many listeners describe the spellbinding sound as the music drifts through the choirs. Indeed, singing this piece live and being immersed in the sound of 39 other voice parts is an exhilarating and unique experience. Perhaps equally as captivating are the three moments throughout the piece where the music stops entirely. The sound is left to resonate in the air, the roomful of singers takes a collective breath, and then the music continues with a renewed energy.
Spem in alium resembles the interior of an enormous cathedral. On the smallest level, detail and intricacy pervade its entirety, but they are not to be comprehended all at once. Rather they comprise and enrich the whole. Tallis imbues this detail with great character. At times it is intensely linear and melodic, exemplifying the polyphonic idiom (‘Spem in alium nunquam habui’, ‘qui irasceris et propitius eris’). Indeed, the very opening is as heavenly as any of Tallis’ other Latin motets. Other times Tallis writes more boisterously, using large melodic leaps and sharp rhythms (‘præter in te, Deus Israël’, ‘in tribulatione dimittis’). Especially in conjunction with tutti texture, this style of writing makes for a loud, arresting sound. Tallis throws the sound back and forth for ‘Domine Deus, Creator cæli et terræ’, so that each each choir has a chance to interject. Throughout this section he keeps the harmony fairly static, which makes the A major chord on ‘respice’ all the more shocking. Two iterations of these final words define the structure of the piece’s resolution, though they are eminently different. The first is thinner in texture, more melodic, and highlights the ‘minor’ areas of the mode. The second is tutti, more rhythmic, and contains virtually only major chords. The very ending of the piece is an extended gesture rather than a single motion: Tallis takes three bars to bring each voice into its final cadence: a prolonged web of G major arpeggiation.
Spem in alium is among the masterpieces of Western music; to sing it is the ambition of choirs everywhere. It is fulfilling and gratifying to sing; for many a singer it is a real test of individuality and musicality. Both its construction in 40 parts and the mystery surrounding its genesis afford it considerable variety of interpretation: slow, fast, a cappella, instrumental, smooth, crisp, you-name-it. This variety plays a central role in the accessibility of the piece and is also a testament to its versatility as a composition and to its popularity. In the creation of Tallis’ Virtual Voice, we have endeavoured to serve the choral community worldwide by enhancing the accessibility of this incredible piece of music. To sing Spem is to celebrate what it means to sing in a choir, and there has never been a better time to do so.
The most comprehensive learning resource for Spem in alium that has ever existed
The centrepiece of Tallis’ Virtual Voice is the learning tool. Using my multitrack recording, we have created a web-based tool for the benefit of learning to sing Spem in alium. Users can configure the recording in virtually endless ways to suit their individual learning needs. Starting by defining their choir and voice part, the user can then select from an array of listening options and follow along as Hugh Keyte’s edition of the score scrolls across the screen.
Do you belong to a choir that could sing Spem in alium or is already planning to? Be sure to use Hugh Keyte’s edition and take advantage of this unprecedented resource. Share this page with your choral director and/or fellow choristers.