Take a look at Classic FM’s Hall of Fame, and there among the poll of listeners’ favourite classical pieces you’ll find a surprise. Coming in at number 89, just ahead of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and only just behind Albinoni’s Adagio, is Thomas Tallis’s sacred vocal work Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui – “I have no other hope (than God)”.
Why should an immensely complex piece in a dead language have struck such a chord? Part of the reason is the current vogue for spiritual music, which has sent CDs of chants by Spanish monks and The Priests soaring up the album charts. But there is something extraordinary about this particular piece. It’s like an ocean of sound, where individual voices are glimpsed for a few seconds before they vanish back into the mass.
Beyond that, the piece is a masterful combination of rhetorical persuasiveness and architectural cogency. By the time he wrote it, possibly around 1568, Thomas Tallis had a huge reputation as a composer of artfully complex music, full of arcane technical devices and hidden symbols. Born around 1505, Tallis had worked his way up from being the musical director of a modest little priory in Dover to being a key member of the Chapel Royal in London. He was right at the centre of power, which in one way was advantageous as it gave him the best singers and players to work with.
But in another way it was risky. England in the mid 16th century was convulsed by religious upheaval. The initial traumatic break with the Roman Church brought on by Henry VIII led to the forcible closing and desecration of ancient monasteries (including Waltham Abbey, where Tallis was one of many who lost their living).
A new liturgy in English was established through the reign of Edward VI, but all these reforms were undone by the Catholic Mary Tudor. Stability only arrived with Elizabeth I, who reverted to her father’s faith, but turned a blind eye to Catholics who wanted to practice their faith in private.
One of these so-called “recusants” may have been Thomas Tallis – we don’t know because he was clever at covering his tracks. He certainly proved to be a master of the simpler style demanded for the new English liturgy. But right to the end of his life he composed for private patrons who hankered after the florid, complex works of the old Catholic musical establishment. And the biggest of all these “underground” Catholic pieces is Spem in Alium.
You might think that simple piety was the impetus, but professional rivalry played just as big a role. In 1567 a 40-part Mass by the Italian composer and diplomat Alessandro Striggio was performed privately in London, and it’s likely Tallis was present. A contemporary diarist recalled that a “music-loving Duke” – probably the Catholic fourth Duke of Norfolk, later arrested for plotting to topple Elizabeth from the throne – “asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe.”
Tallis rose to the bait, and produced something that for technical ingenuity and dramatic pacing beats Striggio’s piece hands down. Simply managing 40 independent parts so that they sound well and don’t tread on each other’s toes is hard enough. But Tallis goes beyond simply managing. He uses his eight five-voice choirs in every conceivable combination, sometimes flowing into each other, sometimes set against each other, and saves the glorious 40-voice sound for dramatic high points.
It’s thought the piece may have been premiered in 1570 in the octagonal banqueting hall of the Duke’s country residence of Nonsuch Palace, with the choirs dispersed on the galleries above the audience. This would give the music an added spatial dimension, sometimes appearing to ricochet back and forth, sometimes rotating around the listeners’ heads. It’s an astonishing idea, anticipating Stockhausen’s modernist experiments with spatial music by 440 years.
History doesn’t say whether the Duke, recently released from prison, enjoyed the piece he’d helped to bring forth. In any case his freedom was short-lived, as he was implicated in another plot and executed in 1572 for treason.
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