Spem in alium

Spem in alium is an English Renaissance masterpiece, a sonic powerhouse that manages to compete with the musical and technical achievements of our own time.  It’s one of those truly great compositions that highlights what the Renaissance is capable of bringing to the table for those looking to first wade into the waters of Early Music.  The man responsible for this Herculean work is Thomas Tallis.


Before this extraordinary piece of music can be fully appreciated or even discussed, it’s of benefit to introduce you to Mr. Tallis up front, just some highlights to put him into perspective.  Tallis is considered one of England’s greatest composers, the Renaissance equivalent of Bach, if you will.  He was born near the end of the reign of Henry VII, and little is known of his childhood.  Eventually he ended up at Canterbury Cathedral, where he composed and performed for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and finally Elizabeth I until he died in 1585.  He managed to avoid the religious controversies in spite of the fact that he remained Catholic to the end.  How’d he do it?  By being versatile.

Throughout the whole of this era, as it had been for centuries, the royal court was the hub of all political and social culture.  Art, music, literature, and fashion were all status symbols used by royalty and nobility to signify their greatness.  All creative types were considered extensions of the courts who sponsored them, for without their patronage these people would never be allowed to live up to their potential.  Anything from a noble’s court that marked a pinnacle achievement was to be either outdone or acquired, for none could shine brighter than the endeavors sponsored by the throne itself.  The culture in the royal court was supposed to set the highest standard, not only for its own people, but as a declaration of supreme magnificence through other lands as well.  Putting that into perspective, Tallis was the top composer for the line of Tudor monarchs.  Many of the works he wrote were on-demand for specific occasions or for regular religious services.  Sometimes these decrees would come straight from the throne.  Other times, it would be a “challenge” from the nobles that would incite an artistic response on behalf of the royal court as a matter of honor and prestige.   Whatever was requested of him from these radically different (and sometimes lethally temperamental) sovereigns, he was able to pull it off in the grand style with consistency towards excellence.  No mean feat in that age of upheaval, as you can imagine.  I defy any of the pop tarts of the week we have now to pull off something like that.

We have an anecdote from a letter written by Thomas Wateridge, a law student, which dates back to 1611 regarding Tallis and the piece of music I want to spotlight:

In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.

There are all kinds of historical corrections I could discuss (and won’t for brevity’s sake), but the point is that somebody else’s music came to Elizabeth’s court, and much like her father, she had to have something even better to reflect England and her throne.  You can always count on royalty to blow things out of proportion, and nobody did it like a Tudor monarch.  And you think your job is stressful?  Trying working for that boss.

As the above anecdote says, Spem in alium is a motet in 40 parts.  I’m sure all of you are well-versed in Medieval and Renaissance musical styles (because, why not, right?), but let’s break this down so those who don’t speak the lingo of the bygone age can keep up.

A motet is a musical style that’s outlined for five voices: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass.  Simple enough, right?  So to get 40 voices, this composition utilizes eight choirs of five parts each.

Here’s where it gets good.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever listened to music in surround sound.  It’s pretty common in our world, isn’t it?  Even though we live in the technologically backward era of the compressed stereo mp3 as an audio “standard,” we still have a basis of understanding that surround sound operates through speaker placement.  There’s generally a “sweet spot” somewhere in the center that allows for the optimum sonic experience.  Turns out, while they didn’t have that kind of technology in Elizabethan England, they still had surround sound.  If the royal courts can play chess with human pieces, it stands to reason they’re going to have surround sound with human speakers.  This piece of music represents the ultimate in Renaissance surround sound expression.

How it worked is that the audience would sit in a gallery, like a courtyard or similar setting, with platforms raised high in front and to the sides as a horseshoe shape.  It was generally done in such a way that the audience was unaware of how many performers there actually were until they started singing, so the effect was one of surprise as much as anything else.  When you hear this piece of music, it begins with a solo voice from the first choir, with other voices joining in imitation, each falling silent in turn.  The musical effect is that the sound travels around the audience from choir 1 to choir 8 and back again, not unlike the opening sound effect for Diana Ross’ song “Reflections.”


Sometimes this piece is homophonic, meaning it carries the same tune across all voices, and sometimes it’s polyphonic, meaning we get harmonies out of it.  The contrasts of sound are mind-blowingly elegant for those with ears to appreciate it.  Depending on who performs it, the piece lasts generally around 10 or 12 minutes.  Results may vary because the truly sad fact is we don’t know for sure.  We modern monkeys may not even be performing it correctly at all.  Musical notation wasn’t cemented in stone until Beethoven’s era, and the United States redefined concert A pitch in 1939 based on intelligence reports from the British, who were in turn spying on research being conducted by the Nazis.  Of course, the Nazis were researching sound for purposes of weaponization, so whenever somebody says modern music is bad, that’s not just an opinion.  It’s scientific fact!  Not really America’s finest hour, to be honest, but it’s been the Western standard ever since.  If you want to hear the immediate difference, just listen to anything from Africa, India, or traditional koto music from China or Japan.  At any rate, reconstructing Early Music is one part artistry, one part archaeology, and one part mad science.

Thankfully, we do know something about the harmonics and Solfeggio frequencies of music in the Middle Ages and why certain frequencies were used to generate spiritual effects, a tradition that is certainly carried over through Tallis and his work to our modern reconstructions of that work.

Now let’s discuss the music itself, because if you’re like me, you don’t know jack about how to translate Latin.  What?  You expected English from an English composer?  I did say the man was unapologetically Catholic.

The title Spem in alium translates as “Hope in any other.”  The text of it is derived from Catholic verse used in Matins, and you can look up details from there if you want to know more about it.  The lyrics are as follows:

Spem in alium nunquam habui
Praeter in te, Deus Israel
Qui irasceris et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum
in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator caeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostrum

Still can’t understand Latin?  Neither can I, but you have to admit, it sounds classy.  Have a modern 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 lowliness

There’s a contrafactum of this that was done in 1610 for the investiture of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.  Wait, what’s a contrafactum?  It’s when you make up new lyrics for an existing tune, like “What Child is This?” was retroactively applied to “Greensleeves.”

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.

Submitted for your entertainment, education, and edification, and without further adieu, I give you Thomas Tallis’ grand masterpiece, Spem in alium, c. 1570, as performed by The Tallis Scholars.  Through no fault of the performers, I don’t think the recording does the piece justice just due to the compressed stereo of YouTube.  If you can get your paws on a surround sound recording (and such is available!), you’re in for a real treat.  If you can hear it live… well, you be the judge on what you might think that’ll sound like.


11 thoughts on “Spem in alium

  1. Pingback: Off to a Good Start | Knight of Angels

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