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This week we're going back to the 1500s to share a great piece of choral music

It’s been a long week and so apologies this week’s offering is a bit later than planned, but here we go:

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) is considered one of England’s greatest composers. He lived a long life which overlapped the reigns of several monarchs, including Henry VII, Henry the VIII and Elizabeth I. His great musical skill was recognised by the rulers, for whom he composed and performed. His success was aided by an ability to avoid falling out of favour with either the Catholic or Protestant monarchs despite being a Catholic himself. His student, the great composer William Byrd, was fined for his religious views, but Tallis seems to have avoided controversy. We know little about his early life other than that he was probably a chorister which explains some of his extraordinary skill in writing vocal music.

His music had a long-lasting influence on many composers. For example, nearly 400 hundred years later, Vaughan Williams based his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis on the Third Mode Melody which Tallis contributed to the 1567 Psalter for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

As extra listening, you might like to explore the original Tallis and the Vaughan Williams Fantasia. Interestingly here, the words printed in the video provide some other musical links. “I heard the voice of Jesus say” is also commonly set to the hymn tune Kingsfold. Vaughan Williams used this as the basis for his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. And finally, Kingsfold is a variant of tune for the Irish folksong “The Star of the County Down” which choir members have been rehearsing as part of Adam’s new settings of British folksongs in The Songs of the Isles. Links to the Tallis, Vaughan Williams and Kingsfold are all included below.

Our shared choral work for the week is one of Tallis’ most famous works: Spem in alium (translation: I have never put hope in any other). It may have been that Tallis was responding to a challenge to write a motet in forty parts to match a similar work by the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio, but there is some uncertainty about this. Indeed, the exact date of composition is debatable, and it has been suggested that Tallis may have written Spem in alium before Striggio wrote his forty-part work Ecce beatum lucem.

One of the challenges of performance for choirs is the number of parts. The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices each (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass), so with one singer per part, a choir needs forty members. It seems Tallis intended the choirs to be laid out in the round or in a horseshoe so the sound has a spatial element as parts pass from choir to choir in waves, interspersed with moments of tutti. The recording gives a visual indication of the scale and scope of Tallis’s achievement.

As you listen, you may be able to hear the seeds of the Poulenc motets we shared last week in this stunning choral work.

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