“Spem in alium” by Thomas Tallis

Last week we talked about Renaissance music, so today I’m going to introduce you to Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis and his choral motet Spem in alium.

An English composer who lived from around 1505-1585, Thomas Tallis is considered one of England’s greatest composers. Not much is known about his early life, but he was probably involved in music at a young age, and he continued to sing, play (the organ specifically), and compose throughout his life. Tallis was one of the first composers to set the English liturgy (Catholic church service) to music (Latin was the language of choice in the church). He also wrote a substantial amount of keyboard music. Read more about him here.

Tallis composed the choral motet Spem in alium around 1570. Unlike most Renaissance motets, which usually have anywhere from three to six voices, Spem in alium has 40 independent voice lines. Starting with just one voice, each part weaves in and out of the others, passing from one group to the next, combining polyphony with chordal movement and creating flow and harmony typical of the Renaissance. The combination of the 40 different voice parts allows for constantly changing musical ideas.

The text was taken from a Latin mass; here is a poetic English translation:

Spem in alium nunquam habui (I have never put my hope in any other)

Praeter in te, Deus Israel (but in You, O God of Israel)

Qui irasceris et propitius eris (who can show both anger and graciousness,)

et omnia peccata hominum (and who absolves all the sins)

in tribulatione dimittis (of suffering man)

Domine Deus (Lord God,)

Creator caeli et terrae (Creator of Heaven and Earth)

respice humilitatem nostram (be mindful of our lowliness).

Honestly, no one is sure why Tallis wrote this 40-voice piece. One idea is that composers were challenging each other to write large works with an even larger amount of independent voice lines. Or he might have written it for Queen Mary I. OR he also could have written it for Queen Elizabeth (she ruled after Mary). We don’t know. But you can read more information here.

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