Spem in alium

"Spem in alium" is a forty-part motet by Thomas Tallis, composed circa 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each. Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its fairly simple harmonic framework; allowing for an astonishing number of individual musical ideas to be sung during its ten-to-twelve minute performance time.


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 Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe mad [e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad [e] one of 40 p [ar] ts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other th [a] t the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke & 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". [Moroney, p. 28-33]

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. Fact|date=November 2007 Other dates have been suggested, including the possibility that it was composed years earlier for Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's predecessor.cite journal | author = George Steel | title = The Story of "Spem in alium" | journal = Andante | month= March | year= 2002 | url = http://www.andante.com/article/article.cfm?id=16297]


The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mess, the work is continually presenting new ideas to the listener.

The effect on the listener of the sheer number of ideas contained in the work, compounded with the unusual performance practice of surrounding the audience with performers, is that of inundation, or of being completely overwhelmed.

The work is not often performed, as it requires at least forty singers capable of meeting its technical demands.



The original Latin text of the motet is from a response (at Matins, for the 3rd Lesson, during the V week of September), in the Sarum Rite, adapted from the Book of Judith.

:Spem in alium numquam habui praeter in te:Deus Israel:qui irasceris:et propitius eris:et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis:Domine Deus:Creator coeli et terrae:respice humilitatem nostram

There is no early manuscript source giving the underlay for the Latin text: the 1610 copies give the underlay for the English contrafactum "Sing and glorify" (see below), with the Latin words given at the bottom.

English translation

:I have never put my hope in any other but in you, :O God of Israel :who can show both anger:and graciousness, :and who absolves all the sins of suffering man :Lord God, :Creator of Heaven and Earth :be mindful of our humiliation

English contrafactum

Sung at the 1610 investiture of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.

:Sing and glorify heaven's high Majesty,:Author of this blessed harmony;:Sound divine praises:With melodious graces;:This is the day, holy day, happy day,:For ever give it greeting,:Love and joy, heart and voice meeting::Live Henry princely and mighty,:Harry live in thy creation happy.


One of the best-known recordings of the motet is by the Tallis Scholars. Other recordings include those by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral; the Oxford Camerata; the Choirs of King's and St John's Colleges, Cambridge; The Sixteen; Cantillation; and, most recently (2006), by the British male "a capella" group, the King's Singers. This recording is particularly noteworthy, since the group is composed of just six men: all forty parts are performed by these six via multitracking. The Kronos Quartet has also recorded an instrumental version of the motet on their album, "Black Angels". Cellist Peter Gregson has also multitracked "Spem in Alium", performing all 40 parts on one cello.

Another version of this motet is featured in Janet Cardiff's "Forty-Part Motet" (2001), an exhibition which is part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

The exhibit is set in the Rideau Street Chapel, which is the salvaged interior of a demolished school chapel that is now in permanent display at the National Gallery. Forty speakers are set around the Chapel, each one featuring a single voice of the forty-part choir. The result is a highly-enhanced polyphonic effect, as visitors may hear each individual voice through its corresponding speaker, or listen to the voices of the entire choir blending in together with varying intensities, as one moves around the Chapel. Previously it toured the world, including in early 2006 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it was a temporary installation in one of the contemporary rooms.

On 10 June 2006, the BBC asked for 1,000 singers to meet, rehearse and perform the piece in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester for what was almost certainly the largest performance of the piece in history. On that day, over 700 singers attended, most of whom had never sung the piece before. A program following the day's events was broadcast on BBC Four on December 9, 2006. [cite web | url = http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/music/features/peoples-chorus-about.shtml | title = People's Chorus | publisher = BBC] [cite web | url = http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/proginfo/tv/wk50/sat.shtml#sat_choirchorus | title = Programme info | publisher = BBC]

The piece featured prominently in the Poliakoff drama, "Gideon's Daughter"."Spem in alium" accompanies the film Touching the Void, and reaches a climax when Yates and Simpson reach the summit of the mountain.

Tallis' "Spem in alium" has also inspired several modern composers to write 40-part choral works, for example Giles Swayne's "The Silent Land" (1998), Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's "Tentatio" (2006) and Peter McGarr's "Love You Big as the Sky" (2007). A London-based choral festival, the Tallis Festival, inspired by "Spem in alium", commissioned both Mäntyjärvi and McGarr to compose in this genre.

External links

* [http://www.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Spem_in_alium_nunquam_habui_%28Thomas_Tallis%29 Choral Public Domain Library] (with further discussion of the work, as well as complete score and singer's editions for each of the eight choirs, available for free legal download).
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/earlymusicshow/pip/7821v/ The Early Music Show]
* [http://www.brightonconsort.org.uk/midis/others/spem_in_alium.htm Brighton Consort's MIDI Set] offers midi files of each choir and each part within each choir for practice.


* Davitt Moroney, "Alessandro Striggio's Mass in Forty and Sixty Parts". Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 60 No. 1., pp. 1-69. Spring 2007. ISSN 0003-0139


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