Sixteenth century Christian choral music is not usually my bag, I have to confess. “Spem In Alium”, though, is one of those rare pieces of music that has the ability to stop the listener dead in their tracks, open-mouthed in astonishment. Before I heard this, my only exposure to Tallis had been indirectly through Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis”, a piece that I’d loved dearly since childhood. If I had any preconceptions at all, it would be that his music would be all lutes and madrigals – him being Elizabethan and all. I certainly didn’t expect this.
Tallis was a Catholic who managed to emerge through the reformation and counter-reformation unscathed. In Elizabethan England, being Catholic not only counted against you, but could cost you your life. Yet Tallis served under four monarchs, and in 1573, along with William Byrd (another Catholic), he was given the extraordinary privilege of being granted an exclusive license for the printing and publishing of music in England for a period of two decades. He died in November 1585 aged around 80.
“Spem In Alium” was composed for forty voices, arranged in eight choirs of five. It was designed to be heard ‘in the round’, and was first performed at an octagonal banqueting hall at Nonsuch Palace, owned by the Duke of Arundel. It must have sounded awesome. Each choir is scored separately. It could have been the recipe for discordant chaos, but the result is mesmerising, with a grace and serenity that belies the complexity of the work. Notes are sustained for long periods, with harmonies and counterpoints weaving around. “Spem In Alium” was mathematically precise in its construction (there are ‘in jokes’ and little puzzles that delight ardent musicologists, but would conjour up only blank looks from the rest of us), but what really counts is the finished article, and it is stunning. It is only at the very end that all the choirs come together on the same note, closing a twelve minute aural trip. The closest contemporary music has come to this kind of transcendent beauty would be something like Brian Eno’s “Ascent (An Ending)” from Apollo, or Stars of the Lid at their very best. It’s available (recorded in surround sound by the Oxford Camerata in 2005) on a Naxos CD for a fiver together with eight other pieces.