Friday, 21 March 2008

Spem in Alium

If you have been trying out the last.fm "playlist" widget [Edit: now here] down on the right hand side of this blog, you will have found that it mostly plays tangos I like.

However, sometimes it plays something else I like. I am not quite sure how it decides what order to play the playlist in, but if you are really lucky it may play you something completely different - the Tallis Scholars singing Spem in Alium.

This is not my favourite recording of this piece. I prefer the Clerkes of Oxenforde, who sing it higher, faster, and rather less securely; I think that Spem in Alium should be exciting, and a feeling of total security slightly defeats the point.

There are several competing legends about this composition. There's no evidence for any of them, really, and my favourite, which I'll get to, is probably completely made up. It's sometimes said to have been written for the 40th birthday of queen Elizabeth I, but I find the theory that it was written for her elder sister, Mary I, more plausible. Or it may have been written simply because someone else, an Italian, had written a forty-part motet, and the Duke of Norfolk asked whether an Englishman could write anything as good. We know it was written by Thomas Tallis, and you can look up his career, but that's about it.

It's written for forty voices; eight, five-part choirs. If you have the score in front of you, you can see that it makes sense for them to stand in a semicircle or horseshoe shape. The way the music flows down the page tells you that choir 1 stands on one side of the room and choir 8 on the other, with the others in between in order. You might put little gaps in to emphasise some things. You could do it differently, but it would make no sense.

It starts with one voice.

Spem in alium ...

The voices come in one by one, and then the second choir, one by one.

Spem in alium nunquam habui ...
Hope in no other have I had ...

The other voices come in, one voice at a time, working across the room and down the page. You need a strong one just here:

Praeter in te, Deus Israel ...
Save in you, God of Israel ...


This continues until there are forty, each in its own part.

Praeter in te!

After a moment, the music starts back across the room.

Qui irasceris, et propitius eris ...
Who will be angry, and again gracious ...


As it gets there, a tree breaks into blossom.

Et omnia peccata hominem ...
And all the sins of man ...

A fountain dances, a trumpet sounds ...

In tribulatione dimittis ...
In trouble, will forgive ...


The choirs take turns, calling and responding, some are silent, some sing softly ...

In tribulatione dimittis ...

They dance a stately figure.

Domine Deus, Domine Deus ...
Lord God ...


Turning and crossing and courtseying, they answer one another ...

Creator coeli et terrae!
Creator of heaven and earth!

There is a little, tiny pause.

Respice!
Look!

In forty parts, it's spooky.

The wave streams gradually away ...

humilitatem nostram ...
upon our lowliness ...

Silence.

Respice!

You can hear the beat now, a great heart-beat of forty voices, every one seperate and every one dancing its own dance and a dance together, fountains twinkling, fireworks glittering in the sky ...
Respice humilitatem nostram!

And the Duke of Norfolk, in the Long Gallery at Arundel, takes the great gold chain from his own neck and puts it around the bowed head of Mr. Tallis.

I like that legend.

3 comments:

Jodie said...

I love Spem in Alium, it's an amazing-sounding piece, gives me shivers in my belly every time I hear it. I can still remember the very first time I heard it - 7 years ago, listening to Classic fm whilst decorating my new flat. I got down off the stepladder and, dripping paintbrush still in hand, stood by the radio, listening intently until it finished.

Next day I couldn't remember the name of it and described it to my friend as, "...a beautiful choral thing, and the title was something like Im Spermum Alioli". Luckily he realised what I was on about and was able to give me the correct title so that I could go and buy a CD!

tangobaby said...

I will have to listen to it later (I'm at work right now and that diminshes my capacity to enjoy beautiful things on the internet.)

I am glad you gave me an explanation of the music because it does sound like a Monty Python song if you didn't know any better.

msHedgehog said...

It does look a bit as though it might mean "hope in garlic".