December 10, 2015

The Tallis Scholars - Spem In Alium, 1985

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) is considered by many to be one of the most important English composers ever to have lived, and is definitively one of the most important composers of early choral music. His crowning achievement, "Spem In Alium," is a ten minute long 40-part motet that borders on psychedelic: ceaselessly shifting, simultaneously hyper-precise yet almost shapeless. From Wikipedia:
The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices. It's 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 antiphonal 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 elegant harmonic framework, allowing for a large 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.
I've been listening to this album for ten years and it's still disorientingly beautiful. The other works in this collection are gorgeous in their own right, with "Sancte Deus" and "Miserere Nostri" being personal favorites. Not included are his "Lamentations of Jeremiah," cited as his other masterwork; I'm also a chump for "If ye love me"...there are plenty of other compilations worth seeking out. Happy December, but also, listen to this all year round.

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  1. never listened to this in its entirety. now's the time! thanks for posting.