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Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet

September 10–December 8, 2013

Tallis's Spem in alium

Alexander Blachly
Professor of Music, University of Notre Dame; Director, Pomerium


When and for whom was Tallis's Spem in alium written? A letter written in 1611 by a law student named Thomas Wateridge contains the following anecdote:

In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe made[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of __________ bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad[e] one of 40 p[ar]ts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other th[a]t the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his neck & putt yt about Tallice his necke & gave yt him.

In his revised Tudor Church Music edition of Spem in alium of 1966, Philip Brett surmised that this remarkable work "was possibly conceived in the . . . spirit of patriotic endeavour, and may well have been performed on some great state occasion in the reign of Mary or Elizabeth." Denis Stevens in 1982 made the case for the reign of Elizabeth, believing that Spem in alium must have had a model, as in Wateridge’s anecdote, the most likely one being a forty-voice work by Alessandro Striggio. Striggio first visited London in 1567, almost a decade after Mary’s death in 1558. Stevens therefore put the date of Spem in alium sometime after 1567. This view has been widely accepted ever since, but not by eveyone.

In 2002, George Steel published an online article in Andante magazine in which he proposed that Tallis's extraordinary forty-voice motet dates not from the reign of Elizabeth I but from that of Mary Tudor. He pointed out that the surviving manuscripts of Spem in alium show a Latin text "drawn from the Biblical book of Judith as used in the Sarum (i.e., pre-Reformation English) liturgy of the Historia Judith." To understand the significance of this, it must be remembered that Mary Tudor was regarded as a modern Judith because of her beheading of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who had tried to put the Protestant Lady Jane Grey on the throne upon the death of Edward VI. (Jane Grey actually reigned for nine days, until Mary arrived in London with an immense crowd of supporters to claim the throne.) "Briefly, the story of Judith (as related in the Apocryphal book of the same name) runs thus: Judith (read: Mary), a pious and beautiful widow, defends her homeland from the Assyrian army by cutting off the head of its treacherous commander Holofernes (read: Northumberland)."

The earliest record of Spem in alium is in a catalogue from the library at Nonsuch Palace made in 1596, which lists "a song of fortie partes, made by Mr. Tallys." Henry VIII commissioned the building of Nonsuch in 1538 with the purpose of having it rival in splendor such palaces as Fontainebleau in France. Mary inherited Nonsuch upon her accession in 1553 and sold it in 1556 to Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel and an ardent supporter of her claim to the throne. When Henry VIII died in 1547, the building was not yet finished. It is believed that Fitzalan undertook the completion himself. The palace's most distinctive feature was its south face, framed by two large octagonal five-storey towers. If Spem in alium was indeed composed for performance in Nonsuch Palace, as the surviving evidence tempts us to believe, the most likely venue would have been one of the uppermost tower rooms, along the eight walls of which the eight choirs would have been positioned in a complete circle, surrounding a select seated audience of perhaps thirty or forty people. The towers' top rooms were roughly 25 feet in diameter (almost identical to the 27-foot width of the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters).

The decision to write for forty voices surely has significance, in light of Tallis's habit of modeling large-scale compositions on symbolic, numeric frameworks. Even the length of Spem appears to have symbolic meaning: 138 breves = 69 imperfect longs. The name "Tallis" spelled numerically in gematria is 69, as is the name "Judith." The two together equal 138. The name "Maria" (as in Mary Tudor) in gematria spells 40. Note also that the first time all forty voices in Spem sound together occurs in the 40th bar. Mary celebrated her fortieth birthday on 16 February 1556, the same year she sold Nonsuch to Fitzalan. Of course, the birthday argument could also be used to support the claim for Elizabeth, in that she turned forty in 1573.

But further ruling in favor of Mary are the additional considerations presented by Steel, namely, that a text taken from the Historia Judith points to Mary, not Elizabeth, since it was Mary who was associated with the Biblical Judith. Significantly, the Latin words, a paraphrased version of those in the Latin Bible, come from the Sarum breviary, the official liturgical service book during Mary's reign (permanently superseded by the English Book of Common Prayer when Elizabeth abolished the Sarum rite in 1559). What more appropriate gesture of gratitude from one of the great Catholic families of England—which as of 1556, and thanks to Mary, owned one of the most magnificent buildings in Europe—than to commission for the queen a present such as this in her fortieth year, a monumental prayer of piety for forty voices by England's most celebrated composer? The text reinforces the conceit of Mary as a modern Judith who saved her people from Protestantism. The music reflects Mary's love of extraordinarily rich, complex textures. And a first performance at Nonsuch would have helped further cement the bond between Mary and Fitzalan, one of her most loyal defenders against ever-present Protestant intrigue.

All these considerations together point to a planned premiere of Spem in alium in Nonsuch Palace in 1556, with Queen Mary Tudor as the intended dedicatee. In the event, that premiere seems not to have occurred—most likely because of the death of Fitzalan's son and daughter in 1556, and of his wife in 1557. The most likely first performance was therefore in 1559 or 1567, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. (The newly crowned Elizabeth spent five days at Nonsuch in August 1559, and we know from Wateridge's anecdote quoted above that the piece was performed in Arundel House in London; the date of that performance has now been determined to have been 1567.) Queen Elizabeth is therefore most likely the first English monarch to have heard Spem in alium, although the evidence suggests that it was composed for her half-sister, Queen Mary Tudor, as a fortieth-birthday present.

Spem in alium
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 caeli et
respice humilitatem nostram.

Thomas Tallis
I have never put my hope in any
besides you, O God of Israel,
who grows angry, but then,
becoming gracious, forgives all the
sins of men in their tribulation:
Lord God, creator of heaven and
earth, look upon our lowliness.