Thomas Tallis: Spem in Alium and ChoralWiki

The 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis somehow managed to compose a 40 voice motet. The 40 voices are a combination of eight 5 voice choirs (SATBarBass). How the composer, conductor, and singers keep track of all this is beyond me.

First here’s a performance of this work on youtube accompanied by photos of what is probably Wales:

(Note, the links to Choral Wiki are dead. If anyone knows where to find it, please leave URL in comment. Thanks.)

Now if your interested in following along with the score, I found an amazing site called “ChoralWiki” which contains lots of choral sheet music. A pdf of Spem in Alium reveals how the 5 part choirs come in one by one and then some go out. Each choir is like a voice. At one point there’s a couple choirs going and suddenly all the choirs come in.

All 40 voices sing together in bar 40. Bar 40 is essential a G maj chord and all 40 voices are singing g, b, and d in slightly different rhythms. Amazingly, there’s little repetition if you look at all 40 voices-the three notes are presented in almost 40 different ways.

I can’t figure out how a conductor learns a piece like this. You can’t even view a whole page of score at a glance. How does one try it out unless you happen to have 40 voices available?

The 8 choirs were arranged in a circle, therefore the entry of the choirs has a spatial as well as a musical basis.

Philip Legge, in the introduction to the score, explains this spatial dimension:


“Musically, the motet is a tour de force on many levels, not least for
Tallis’ masterful exploitation of his choirs’ spatial distribution. If
the choirs are arranged in circular fashion sequentially by number,
then the music “rotates” through the opening points of imitation on
Spem in alium nunquam habui (choirs I to IV) and Præter in te,
Deus Israel (choirs V to VIII). After a short interjection from
choirs III and IV (which functions antiphonally as “decani” to the
“cantoris” of choirs VII and VIII) Tallis completes the circle with
the entry of the final bass voice of Choir VIII; shortly afterwards,
at the fourtieth breve of the work, all forty voices enter in the first
of a series of massive welters of sound, which has been described
as “polyphonic detailism”. The next imitative section which
follows at qui irasceris et propitius eris reverses the direction of
rotation as new voices enter against varied countersubjects in the
parts already established.

Tallis also manages to combine the exchanges between choirs in
four different antiphonal arrangements, by amalgamating the
singers in four groups of two choirs (as hinted at above), so
antiphony can pass back between both “north” and “south”, but
also between “east” and “west”), but also as two groups of four
choirs (ie one massive 20–voice choir against another) which can
be arranged in two different ways (north and west versus east and
south, or north and east versus south and west).

After the most intricate chordal passage so disposed between the
various choirs, Tallis contrives the entire choir of 40 voices to enter
as one after a pause, “upon a magical change of harmony”. With
the words respice humilitatem nostram Tallis ends with the most
strikingly unhumble polyphonic passage yet heard, framed by the
strong harmonic rhythms of the ensemble. The view that this might
be Tallis’ opus magnum is intriguingly suggested by Hugh Keyte’s
observation of a possible numerological significance in the work’s
duration being exactly 69 long notes: in the Latin alphabet,
TALLIS adds up to 69.”-see intro to score


6 Responses to “Thomas Tallis: Spem in Alium and ChoralWiki”

  1. mba Says:

    A few things (unfortunately not Spem in Alium yet…) can currently be found under:
    There seems to have been a server crash of the original ChoralWiki site.

  2. Michael Tacchia Says:

    This is an exceptionally beautiful work. In August ‘Chanticleer’ will be performing a workshop on this work and I have been studying it. Its beauty is so multi-layered that one must hear it many times and develop a sensitivity to the entrance of each chorus…

  3. Philip Legge Says:

    Hi Ken,

    Curiously I found this page – which looks as though I was searching for my name, but I wasn’t! – because I was searching the net for Chanticleer having done Spem in alium, as I heard from one of the singers involved they had borrowed my CPDL scores for their workshop! 🙂

    I’ve incidentally revised the score – there have been some new developments in the 40-part music world, so I had to revise the Introduction accordingly. What you’ve quoted above, however, still stands – Tallis’ score remains an amazing structure of almost “architectural” music.

    Regards, Philip

  4. Dollie Jeffries Says:

    Very great post! Honestly..

  5. Kristen Rouse Says:

    You’ve done it once again. Amazing writing!

  6. Michal Stimmel Says:

    Examine this out…

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