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Tallis Something Old & Exciting

January 4, 2011

  I owe my good friend, Ashley, a shout out for this post.  The two of us hit our local coffee shop after work today and eventually the conversation turned to blogging, which somehow led to classical music (at which point I miiiight have started dominating the conversation… I tend to get embarassingly “enthusiastic” when classical music is brought up), which led to Ashley graciously mentioning late-Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem in Alium, generally agreed (as I discovered) to be one of the crowns of polyphonic Renaissance music.  (ICYDK: Polyphonic music is music for 2 or more voices, each with its own melodic line, yet still in harmony).

I’d never heard of Tallis before, but not being particularly drawn to early music that could just be subconscious blockage on my part.  What a quick Google search will turn up is that Tallis lived to the absurdly ripe (for 16th century times) age of 80 years (c. 1505 – November 23, 1585); that he was a church musician, as well as court composer and organist for several British monarchs; that he was the musical “it” boy of his time; and that nobody can prove that the above picture is what he really looked like. 
(Personally, I think there’s something kind of Johnny Depp-ish about him, don’t you?  Though Tom still has a bit of work to do in perfecting that smoldering, sexy thing Johnny’s got going on.)

As far as Spem in Alium goes, it was originally written for 8 choirs, each made up of 5 voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass).  Wiki has the following description:

It is most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally all voices join for the culmination of the work. Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its fairly simple harmonic framework, allowing for an astonishing number of individual musical ideas to be sung during its ten-to-twelve minute performance time. The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mess, the work is continually presenting new ideas to the listener. The effect on the listener of the sheer number of ideas contained in the work, compounded with the unusual performance practice of surrounding the audience with performers, can be overwhelming. 

The King’s Singers = sonic nirvana as far as versions of this work go:

And if you have another 6:21 to spare, here‘s an interview the King’s Singers did where they talked about the technical challenges of recording a 40-part motet with only 6 singers.  The stuff you don’t realize when they make the sublime sound so easy…

PS. Happy 2011 to you!!  May it be an amazing year full of good things and memorable musical discoveries.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 10:08 am

    So what’d you think? Did you like it? Did it blow you away? The part at around…the 8 minute mark I think (I’d have to re-listen –the part where all 40 voices are singing at once) makes me want to die it’s so beautiful and so full and so…BIG.

    ps: TOTALLY Johnny. Except not, because no one except Johnny himself could ever be “totally Johnny.” I recently bough a magazine simply because he (Johnny) was on the cover. I still haven’t read the articles.

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