Sometimes, when I’m feeling really down, I listen to Tallis’ Spem In Alium, and it improves my life 100%. Like, my house could be on fire, and I’d be all, these harmonies are transcendent.
You may remember Thomas Tallis as the wispy queer composer dude from The Tudors.
He never brushed his hair, could barely form a coherent sentence, and spent most of his time staring dreamily off into the middle distance. Why, you might ask? Because music, that’s why.
Although there is no historical evidence that the real Tallis slept with men, I am happy to tell you that portraits of him (the earliest of which, to be fair, was painted 150 years after his death) make it appear as if he’d actually met a comb once or twice in his life. Which is good, because really – I know The Tudors is pretty much the least historically accurate show of all time, but do you really think Anne Boleyn would have let a dude like the one above hang around her court? NO. NO SHE WOULD NOT.
Tallis was at court during some pretty violent religious upheavals, and somehow managed to continue to be Catholic and keep his head. This is actually a pretty stunning achievement, considering the times.
The first monarch Tallis composed and performed for was Henry VIII, the king who created his own church so that he could have as many divorces as he wanted. Then there was Edward VI, who only lived until the age of 15 but was still really, really into the Anglican church. Next came Jane, who was queen for about five minutes, which means she probably didn’t have much time to stir up religious shit and/or commission songs. Then came Mary I, called Bloody Mary because she loved killing Protestants so much. Of course, I’m sure Mary was totally cool with Tallis and probably gave him a ton of fist-bumps, on account of how they were both Catholic.
Finally, there was Elizabeth I, while Protestant, was pretty damn tolerant when it came to religion, at least when compared to her predecessors. I mean, sure, she passed an act saying that everyone in England had to go to an Anglican church once a week or else face a fine, but she wasn’t really killing Catholics, so that was a plus for Tallis.
Spem In Alium was composed during the reign of Elizabeth I, probably in 1570. It’s a forty-part motet performed by eight choirs of five members each (which means that you need 40 frigging people singing 40 totally different lines of music). But even though we know the approximate when of Spem In Alium, we’re still unsure as to the why.
One theory suggests that it was written in response to a challenge issued by the Duke of Norfolk. See, at the time, the Italian composers were doing some crazy shit using a million singers singing a million different melodies at the same time. In particular, people were pretty obsessed with Alessandro Striggio‘s Ecce Beatam Lucem, which was apparently written for either 40 or 60 separate voices. Of course, the English couldn’t tolerate an Italian besting them at anything, so Norfolk challenged English composers to write something similar but even better.
The main reference we have for this story is a letter by law student Thomas Wateridge, which says,
In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.
Write an awesome song, get some sweet bling. Well played, Tallis, well played.
If this version of events is true, then it’s likely that Spem In Alium was first performed at Nonsuch Palace, which is maybe the best castle name ever?
Another popular theory suggests that Tallis wrote this forty-part motet in honour of Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday. Get it? Forty voices for forty years. So clever!
A third theory suggests that the Catholic Tallis wrote it to honour the SUPER CATHOLIC Mary I. After all, he did work for her at one point, so maybe he still had some fond feelings for her. Maybe he spent the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign (or the part of it he lived through, anyway) pining for good old Bloody Mary. Seems unlikely, though.
Whoever it was written for, Spem In Alium is one of the most beautiful, other-worldly pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of music that makes my heart beat a little faster because, I don’t know, it’s just so wonderful to live in a world where things like this are created. It’s the kind of music that makes me wonder how the hell man who lived in Tudor England could write something that would make a woman cry 450 years in the future? It’s the kind of music that, for the short time it’s playing, actually makes me wonder if we might live in the best of all possible worlds.
Spem in alium numquam habui praeter in te
et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Creator coeli et terra
respice humilitatem nostram
I have never put my hope in any other but in you
God of Israel
who will be angry
and yet become again gracious
and who forgives all the sins of suffering man
Creator of Heaven and Earth
look upon our lowliness
I should also mention that while researching this post I discovered the 97% of men in Tudor England were named Thomas.