Spem in Alium – Music by Thomas Tallis
There can be few English composers whose lives have spanned a more fascinating and turbulent period of history, for Thomas Tallis, born in 1505, lived to the ripe old age of 80 years - an extremely rare longevity by 16th-century standards.
He was born into a Catholic country, and his first main employment was as organist of Waltham Abbey (the beautiful medieval building featured on our handbills); but after the dissolution in 1540, he was employed at court as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a post he held until his death. Thus he was in close contact with all the changes to the liturgy which took place, first as a result of the break with Rome, then the return to Catholicism under Queen Mary, and finally the return to the English rite under Elizabeth I. He wrote most of his music in Latin, as he remained a Catholic to his dying day, but he was also one of the first composers to write for the new English liturgy.
In every style he adopted his music is of superb quality and consistency, be it the simple syllabic setting of If ye love me, or the intricate polyphony of his great 40 part motet Spem in alium.
In fact, the pieces forming the backbone of tonight’s concert- the Missa Puer Natus Est, Gaude Gloriosa and Spem in Alium - are all thought to date from the reign of Queen Mary. Spem in Alium may even have been a 40th birthday tribute, though it is equally possible that it was written in response to another 40-part motet, Ecce Beatam Lucem, by the Italian Alessandro Striggio who visited London in 1567. It is scored for 8 choirs of 5 voices, that being the constitution of English choirs at the time where the boys’ voices were divided into the high trebles, and the medium- range means. The tenor voice of the time was lower than we are used to now, and the counter-tenor may not have been the all-falsetto voice that we use now, as the range is little different from that of the tenor, though extending higher at the top of the range. Along with the stupendous bass voices for which English choirs were famous, this was the basic makeup of the English choir, and it was unique in Europe.
We will hear the full 5-part texture in a number of pieces this evening, but particularly in those pieces written for Catholic England. Gaude Gloriosa, thought to be inspired by the example of Queen Mary returning England to the Catholic faith, is one of Tallis’s most sonorous compositions. It belongs very much in style pre-Reformation music, where large-scale pieces in many sections made full use of a tapestry of sound resulting from dense and complex polyphony. Notable in the middle of the piece is a section scored for 2 trebles, 2 means and bass, where high, piercing voices vie with the darker tones in a breathtaking passage.
The mass Puer Natus Est gives us an early preview of Christmas. It is based on the Christmas plainchant of the same name, and this chant is heard throughout the piece sung in long notes in the tenor part - a technique known as cantus firmus (and very hard work for the poor tenors!). As is all too common in music from so long ago, this mass does not come down to us complete. Although we know it was scored originally for 2 means, 2 altos, tenor and 2 basses, the 2nd mean part was lost – maybe the last copy of this part ended up wrapped around a joint of beef; a fate all too common for so many important documents from the past! However the part has been reconstructed in modern times by a very valued friend and colleague, Sally Dunkley. I should not put that in the past tense in fact, as she is constantly revising!
In fact not only is the 2nd alto missing, we also lack all but the first few bars of the Creed. The Kyrie, however, would never have been set, as it was customary in England to sing it to a plainsong trope.
All of the shorter pieces in this programme show Tallis at his most expressive. Sancte Deus has an almost austere purity, while Loquebantur, written for Pentecost revels in the confusion of the many voices and languages that the feast commemorates.
With the Miserere, we see Tallis at his most sublime. With such a short simple text he weaves a gorgeous tapestry of sound and colour that can only rival his wondrous Spem in Alium in its final bars.
We have decided to perform Spem in Alium twice. We are confident that you will all understand why!
Deborah Roberts © November 2002