This motet for 40 voices, which has a duration of about 8 minutes, was written 1570 by Thomas Tallis. The title translated from Latin, means “Hope in any other”. The composer got inspired by Alessandro Stiggio, another composer from the 16th century. Who wrote the piece “Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno”, which is also for 40 voices. (1)
The whole piece creates a lovely, encouraging and calm atmosphere. It stays in a medium tempo and is mainly consonant. Even though no instruments are being used, the piece has some parts where it sounds like something is being played, this is presumably caused by the amount of voices.
The choir itself is divided into 8 groups, whereas each of these groups contains a Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass voice.
Due to so many voices singing, several small motives repeating themselves and the fact that this piece is polyphonic, it is difficult to find a “main theme”. Nevertheless, “Spem in alium” can be easily divided into three parts:
In part one, one voice (Alto from the first group) starts, and all the others from the group join in one after another. The remaining seven groups start singing in the right order (group 1 to 8), whereas none of the single voices starts at exactly the same time. When the last few groups start singing, the first ones have already finished their motive. Once every group has had at least one part, the first section, where every voice is singing together, starts (bar 40). This lasts for five bars until the same scheme with every group joining in starts again, this time the other way round (group 8 to 1 ). Followed by another 6 bars of all voices singing together, the different entries of the groups appear a third time, with no particular pattern (or at least no pattern that I could find). This figure of groups just randomly joining and leaving goes to bar 108, where, for the very first time every voice is on a minim rest. This rest comes unexpected, considering that this first part of the piece (which is also by far the longest), had constantly at least one voice singing and for some reason I expected the melodies to be continued.
This part makes a bit of a contrast to the previous one. Even though all voices start with the same strong motive, they separate after a few bars and only a few groups (maximum of 3) keep singing. The mood changes to something more sad, melancholic or lonely. The pattern of the voices making an entrance is the same as in the second section of the first part, groups start to sing from the bottom to the top, starting from group 6. Therefore, groups 7 and 8 don’t get to sing in this part. The end of it is signalized by the only other minim rest.
Except for one or two bars at the beginning, all voices sing together in this part, which is the shortest one. Its only purpose is presumably to get the audience back to the mood of the first theme, whilst creating a very strong sound with all 40 voices included.
My personal opinion
I had the opportunity to play and sing some polyphonic peaces already, and I always really enjoyed it. For this piece, I really liked the theme of the piece, but it was too long until changes (that short second part, mentioned above) where made.
It didn’t become boring, which is probably mainly caused by me (and I suppose most other people as well) wanting to find one voice, which out stands the other ones. This of course is not possible, because all voices are equal, but I still, automatically tried to find a main voice, which kept my mind busy. Interestingly, every time one of the higher voices (sopranos) could be heard, I ended up following only them for a while, due to the high pitch, they seemed a bit more prominent than the other voices.
I got a little irritated after a while of having listened to it, because, until the piece reaches that fist break, it seemed a bit like a chaotic melody which wouldn’t ever end. Furthermore due to those varied entries of voices with some already singing, it somehow sounded a little bit like there was constantly someone whispering in the background.
One could say, that, even though “Spem in Alium” is for 40 voices, it becomes quite monotone-sounding after a while, simply due to its length. The only thing that still kept it a little it interesting for my were the dynamics. Even though one can barely find any changes of dynamics in the score, the usage of the amount of voices made huge differences.
- Legge, P. (2008). Spem in alium nunquam habui, A motet for 40 voices by Thomas Tallis (c.1505 – 1585), 1st ed. (pdf). Available at : https://www.cpdl.org/wiki/images/5/55/Tallis_Spem_in_alium_full_score_PML.pdf