Friday, 10 August 2012

Thomas Tallis - Spem In Alium

Before reading this post, I challenge you to listen to the recording below, and guess how many vocal parts there are in Thomas Tallis' 'Spem In Alium'. I was also given this challenge when I first heard the piece, and I thought somewhere around twenty. However, I was mistaken, as it is in fact an extraordinary number of fourty separate parts - this is definitely what makes this piece such a remarkable composition.

Thomas Tallis was an English composer in the 16th century, and is still considered today as one of England's greatest early composers. Tallis also worked alongside William Byrd, another great British composer of polyphony. They were both given permission to publish their music under the rule of Queen Mary, and thank God that they did, as they're music is the little that we have left of them, seeing as we know very little about their lives.

The text for 'Spem In Alium' (Latin for 'hope in any other') has been used by several other composers, however is only really recognised as Tallis' incredible fourty part polyphonic masterpiece. The voices are written in eight choirs of five voices each (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). Interestingly, the combination of the choirs is not always constant, as for the most part of the beginning of the piece, only one choir will sing at a time with the others only entering to imitate. Whilst the opening music travels from the first choir to the eighth, Tallis then repeats this idea backwards, taking the vocal line back again to the first choir. In the second section of the piece, Tallis then pairs the choirs together to make four double choirs, that repeat the same imitation process. Finally, for the ending, all fourty voices come together.

What I find particularly interesting about this work, is the use of vocal combinations, and the varied sounds that a choir could achieve because of Tallis' writing. For instance, there are times at which only solo voices can be heard (e.g. the beginning of the piece that consists only of upper voices) and there are times at which Tallis uses one whole five-part choir, and finally - there are occasional moments where you can hear two or more choirs (sometimes all) each singing separate and lyrical melodies. When I first knew how many parts there were, I was sceptical as I had the view 'surely there are only so many notes that you can use?'. However, I was completely mistaken, and despite the early musical aspects of this piece, various clashes can be heard that actually add to the movement of the music.

This is definitely one piece in which having a conductor is absolutely crucial, as none of the singers can simply rely on each other. Instead, trying to coordinate fourty different voice parts is a job that might be beyond most conductors, and most singers for that matter!

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