Tallis’ Triumph: Spem in alium

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

This 40-part motet is probably the most famous composition of Tudor polyphony. It likely originated from the London visit in 1567 of Alessandro Striggio. Apparently his own 40-part piece, Ecce beatam lucem, created quite a stir. Denis Stevens suggests that Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, commissioned Tallis to compose an English rebuttal, which was performed in the Long Gallery of Arundel House in London in 1570 or 1571. (The Duke was separated from his head in 1572!) Instruments may have paralleled some of the parts. A figured organ continuo part exists in one presumably authentic manuscript. Sometimes continuo parts were added just to promote performance by less skilled groups.

Six CDs by different groups have crossed my desk; some performed with men and boys, one singer-to-the-part. Or a full choir of men and boys, with or without organ continuo. And then there are groups composed of men and women, one-to-a-part, á capella. Most certainly the ladies were excluded in Tallis’ time. And, as I have stated elsewhere, the average age of puberty in Tudor times was 18! So the choristers were basically full-grown men with the treble voices of boys. Let me start this traversal with the newest CD release, on Linn Records.

Thomas TALLIS: Spem in alium. Lamentations. Mass & Motets.Magnificat, directed by Philip Cave Linn Records CKD 075 (HDCD), 1997

You want loud? You got loud, fortissimo, thanks to the 40 grownups and HDCD. For the less technically hip, HDCD is a recording and playback system devised by Keith Johnson that allows standard 16-bit CDs to have an additional 6dB of loudness, controlled by the Least Significant Bit. The thing to remember is that 6dB is 50%! So when all 40 voices combine, it can get half again as loud. Careful with the tweeters. The singers are arranged in a circle in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden and a Schoeps Sphere mic is visible in the booklet fish-eye photo. Here is a super-clear, super-loud (in spots) dismal drag! This is the Slowest Spem I’ve yet to hear. The other selections also get the dirge treatment. If anyone has an antipathy against choral music, this would confirm their worst prejudices. Pity.

TALLIS: Sacred Choral Works. Spem in aliumThe Sixteen Choir, Harry Christophers conducting. St Jude’s Church, Central Square, London Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0513 (1989)

I assume that this St Jude’s differs from the St Jude-on-the-Hill. We still have, however, 40 grownup singers in an empty church, whichever Jude it may be. And the same dismal dirge bug has bitten The Sixteen Choir. They schlepp through the other motets and Lamentations as well. Next!

TALLIS: Spem in aliumThe Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips conducting. Merton College chapel, Oxford Gimell CDGIM 006 (1985)

Here is the liveliest rendition by grownup men and women, one voice per part. They also move tuchus in the motets. If you want yer Spem with mixed, single voices, this is the version to get! I forgot to add that all the singers in all these recordings use the ‘modren’ Eyetalian pronunciation of Latin, something certainly foreign to Tudor singers and auditors. The Scholars raise the pitch of everything by a fourth, too, so the counter tenors sing the alto range, possibly strange to Elizabethans as well.

UTOPIA TRIUMPHANS: The Great Polyphony of the RenaissanceSt Barbara Church, Gent, Belgium Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel conducting SONY SK 66261 (1994)

The Huelgasers, composed of adult men and women, sing in a circle, one per part. There is both beauty and bounce in their singing, too. Besides Spem they treat us to the Striggio Ecce beatam lucem and other polychoral motets by Gabrieli, deManchicourt, Ockeghem, DesPrez and Porta. The recorded sound is full and rich, as befits a Wolf Erichson-Markus Heiland production. Erichson started off with the DG Archiv division, then produced all those wonderful Das Alte Werk recordings for Telefunken and then his own Seon Musikfilm label, now being re-released on Sony CDs. Another recommended CD!

Motets en espaceThe Choir of New College, Oxford; La Maîtrise de Versailles Edward Higginbottom (New College) and Michel-Marc Gervais (Versailles) conducting K617 AFAA (Association Française d’Action Artistique) K617010 (1991)

Higginbottom directs two combined choirs of men and boys to get up to the required strength of 40 voices for Spem. Here the spatial effects are well delineated in the chori spezzati parts. We also get the Striggio Ecce beatam lucem for comparison, although I feel it is loosely episodic next to the Tallis effort. Motets byLassus, de Victoria, duCarroy, Guerrero, deMonte, Philips and Palestrina fill out the platter. All the singers are quite professional and expressive. No dragging here. Very well worth acquiring, if available!

TALLIS: Spem in alium Winchester Cathedral Choir, Winchester College Quiristers, Vocal Arts Chorus, David Hill, conductor. Timothy Byram-Wigfield, organ. Winchester Cathedral Hyperion CDA66400 (l989)

Hill gives us the large-choir-of-men-and-boys version of Spem, compete with organ continuo. The pacing is pretty sprightly, considering the reverb at Winchester. The other motets get the regular-sized choir treatment. He even imported extra bassos to balance all the trebles. They all make a brave noise indeed, but I feel the Winchester acoustic somewhat got the better of Antony Howell – it is the longest nave in Europe. Or maybe S. Swithun put his curse on the recording for disturbing his tomb? You may just luck on the price of this CD: Hyperion put out a special Anniversary Edition some $7 cheaper than the usual CD price. And I saw both in the same bin, with the different prices, at my neighboring CD emporium.

The world of Thomas TallisChoir of King’s College, Cambridge; Cambridge University Musical Society, Sir David Willcocks conducting. Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, George Guest, conducting DECCA 467-783-2 (1961, 1965, 1966,1990)

Decca has re-packaged the original Argo, and then London analog recordings in impeccable transfers. The 1965 Spem was my first encounter with the piece – and is still my favorite for large choir with organ, in the unique acoustic of King’s College Chapel, personally designed by His Grace, King Henry VI himself and completed by Henries VII and VIII.. One test of the accuracy of your CD player and speaker system is the location of the boy trebles in Spem. On my system they appear above the level of the other singers, floating in the Chapel ether. In the picture that accompanied the LP, you could see that the boys were positioned up on the Rood Screen, about 12 feet above the chapel floor. And that’s just how they sound in the recording. Other motets, the Lamentations and Lessons for organ round out the program. Willcocks was once quoted that he never let the singers go above mezzo-forte in the chapel for recording, to avoid kicking up all kinds of nasty slap echoes and standing waves. These recordings are to treasure.

MUSICA SACRA TALLIS: Spem in alium, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Church MusicKing’s College Choir, Sir David Willcocks conducting. St John’s College Choir, George Guest conducting Decca 455 029-2 (2 CDs; 1961, 1965,1966, 1990)

These two CDs contain everything listed above, plus more antiphons, motets and organ Lessons – just about all the surviving keyboard works of Tallis. There is also a delicious, breathy rendering of the Te Deum by the men and boys of St John’s. There is an organ accompaniment and the text is in the English of the Thomas Cranmer Book of Common Prayer of 1549. The only other extant recording of this beauty is on Signum in the Complete Tallis series, sung by a mixed choir without organ. Makes quite a difference. These CDs may still be available at mid-price. If you only have room for a couple of Tallis CDs, these are the classics to own.