The Tallis Scholars

I’ve always wanted to be at a live performance of the legendary 40 part motet  Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, not only  because it’s a gorgeous piece of music but also because I’ve always wondered what the conductor is supposed to do with his hands when there are so many independent parts. It’s such a complicated and demanding work, however, that opportunities to hear it live are rather limited. Last night’s concert at St David’s Hall by the Tallis Scholars (supplemented by a local choir; the Tallis Scholars number only ten singers) actually involved two performances of Tallis’ most famous work, first at the beginning and then again right at the end.

If you’ve never heard Spem in Alium before, then you really should make the effort. It’s an extraordinary piece of music in many different ways. Most writers focus on its complexity, but that shouldn’t make you think Tallis was just showing off when he wrote it, or distract you from the fact that it’s so very beautiful to listen to. The forty parts  involved are divided into eight choirs, each of five voices. The piece starts with one voice from the first choir, and slowly evolves to incorporate all forty voices, waving each individual vocal line into a gorgeous musical tapestry. At times all the voices seem to be acting independently within the overall harmonic framework, at others the choirs act as the basic unit; there’s a wonderful passage, for example, when choirs throw phrases backwards and forwards between them. There are also moments when all the evolving parts come back into phase so that all voices sing the same words at the same time. The effect of this is indescribable; it sent cold shivers down my spine.

There is so much going on in this piece that it’s difficult to understand how Tallis managed to stop the different parts interfering destructively with each other, but Spem in Alium  never dissolves into a shapeless melisma. As the piece unfolds, the various patterns that appear and disappear are always held in sharp focus. It’s a masterpiece, and although the large space of St David’s Hall probably isn’t ideal for performing a work like this, my long wait to hear a live performance of this masterpiece was well worth it.

The concert wasn’t just about Spem in Alium.  The Tallis Scholars performed a number of other works on their own, including pieces by Tallis’ old mate William Byrd and part of one of my other favourite Tallis works, The Lamentations of Jeremiah. The programme called for various combinations of the singers drawn from the ten in the basic line-up, producing a wide range of texture and colour.

It was all extremely enjoyable, but my lasting memory will be the piece that started and ended the show. There’s so much to discover listening to Spem in Alium that the second performance of it that ended the concert made me want to hear a third straight away.

PS. One of the other pieces performed during the concert was Tallis’ Miserere, which aptly described Cardiff City’s performance at home to West Ham in their play-off semi-final which was being played at the same time as the concert!

14 Responses to “The Tallis Scholars”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I thought “alium” meant garlic?

  2. telescoper Says:

    For those interested, the text is

    Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te
    Deus Israel
    qui irasceris
    et propitius eris
    et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
    Domine Deus
    Creator coeli et terrae
    respice humilitatem nostram

    Translation into English is left as an exercise for the reader.

  3. John Peacock Says:

    Must have been nice to experience it live in 3D. I’ve heard lots of recordings, and pretty well all of them do dissolve into an undifferentiated wall of sound for too much of the time. Maybe surround sound would help, but a normal stereo has touble coping. But somehow Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Choir (on Virgin Veritas) get it right: without resorting to an inauthentic dry studio acoustic, they do manage to get the different lines to be distinctly audible. In fact, I can’t praise their 2-disc set of Tallis church music too highly: for my taste, it’s much superior to the results achieved by the Tallis Scholars in the same repertoire.

    • telescoper Says:

      I have a few recordings of Spem in Alium, but as you say it’s very difficult to resolve the individual threads even on a high quality recording. It’s a bit like looking at an intricate tapestry through a dirty window.

      Legend has it that the piece was intended to be performed by singers stationed in an octagonal gallery, one choir per side, with the listeners in the middle, i.e. in surround sound.

      On stage the choirs were arranged from left to right, and it adds another dimension to the experience to see the moving patterns produced as the work unfolds.

      As for the Tallis scholars themselves, I’d say I thought the male voices were excellent – lovely sonority in the bass and baritone parts especially – but I wasn’t all that convinced by the female voices. One lady in particular was horribly sharp in a couple of places.

      • John Peacock Says:

        Interesting you preferred the lower voices. I have quite a few Tallis Scholars CDs, and in many ways I’m a fan – but I’ve always wished for more richness in the bass: I think their recordings are too dominated by the soprano voices (although the tuning of the high voices is normally ravishing). This is one of the ways in which Parrott is superior.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t have any recordings by the Tallis Scholars to compare with the live performance, but I think I understand what you mean. The bass was solid and accurate rather than deep and intense, and the middle range held it all in balance. I just felt the soprano voices lacked a bit of focus and delicacy. If I were being sexist I’d say those parts should really be sung by boys….

      • John Peacock Says:

        If you don’t have any Tallis Scholars CDs, I’d recommend their Victoria Requiem. It’s one of their earlier recordings, where they were still experimenting with their sound. It has the more vivid bass we were discussing, which (unfortunately IMHO) they subsequently moved away from in favour of a more blended sound.

      • telescoper Says:

        Actually I checked my collection earlier, and I do indeed have one CD by them, of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

        It struck me that the difficulty with this type of music is that it is both a whole and a sum of parts. You have to get the balance right between the overall texture and the clarity and character of the individual voices. Where that balance should lie is clearly a matter of personal taste. I like my operatic basses to be very dramatic, but prefer the lighter touch when it comes to Tallis.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, I too have the Tavener Choir and Taverner Consort recording with Andrew Parrot, and very good it is.

      Spem in Alium is a remarkable piece of music, truly astonishing.

  4. Michael Kenyon Says:

    I was lucky enough to hear a performance of this in Gateshead in 2010 when I was visiting my late mother. Lucky to hear such beautiful music and also to arrive after walking 3 miles through a blizzard of snow.

    Also performed for the first time was David Lang’s ‘I never’ which was commissioned as a companion piece:

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I’ll bet you remember it better because of the snow. Did you have to walk back through it too?

  5. Monica Grady Says:

    Indeed, a beautiful piece, and definitely one of my desert island choices.

    Wikipedia gives a translation:

    I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
    O God of Israel
    who can show both anger
    and graciousness,
    and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
    Lord God,
    Creator of Heaven and Earth
    be mindful of our lowliness

    Maybe Cardiff City have taken the last line too much to heart….

  6. Michael Kenyon Says:

    Alessandro Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts is believed to have been the inspiration for Thomas Tallis’s great motet Spem in Alium, on Radio 3 next Tuesday.

    (Yes, had to walk back, Metro was not running)

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