Washington DC: Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in alium” for 40 voices

My friend Msgr. Charles Pope in Washington DC sent me a video of a practice of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium for 40 voices.  He wrote:

Below is a link to some video snips from the music workshop and performance of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium done at  the Parish today. The translation of the Latin text is:

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

This comes from an era of Church music that was so beautiful that it almost hurts to listen to it today.

Here is a polished recording by the Tallis Allstars… Tallis Scholars.  It isn’t performed very often because it requries – you know – 40 voices.


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  1. mamajen says:

    Just beautiful. This reminds me of an art installation that I saw in Walsall, England many years ago. It was called “40 Part Motet” and consisted of 40 different speakers each “singing” a part. It was beautiful, and quite an experience. The people sitting in that church are very blessed!


  2. Giuseppe says:

    Not just 40 voices. 40 singers singing different parts. It is insane. It reminds me of what it must have been like for God to look down upon His creation and say “this is amazing”.

    Speaking of multiple voices: in NYC this weekend (and in Philadelphia during the week), we had the chance to hear a relatively infrequent performance of Richard Strauss’s great, late masterpiece, the Metamorphosen for 23 Strings. Each string plays a different line. Not quite 40 voices in the Tallis, but still pretty good, and one of the greatest pieces of the 20th century.

    Preview of the weekend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O35__7eQkM8

    Performance of the Metamorphosen with a score from the Septet arrangement on the screen:

    This adds to the R. Strauss anniversary (born 150 years ago, one of the best post-Wagner composers: many tone poems and operas, including Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Daphne, Arabella, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Capriccio, etc.; last week’s and today’s MET Opera broadcasts were R. Strauss : Die Frau ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier.)

    R. Strauss wrote no classically religious music, although he pretty much captured the essence of marriage and the loss of a spouse in old age with his final song in the Four Last Songs:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhxieUVSABM (Lucia Popp, soprano; LSO, Tilson Thomas)

  3. Sigh. Tomorrow at Mass I will probably hear Bernadette Farrell.

  4. Reginald Pole says:

    Through the magic of electronic over-dubbing The King’s Singers perform all 40 parts.

  5. Kerry says:

    There are still churches where it hurts to listen to the music.

  6. Marlon says:

    This post and the last (about talking in church) are related. If people were to hear beautiful music like this in church, they would be rendered speechless.

  7. AnAmericanMother says:

    It is said that Mr. Tallis wrote this in response to a challenge from the Duke of Norfolk:
    In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere was a songe sen into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad 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.

  8. Rachel K says:

    Fabulous piece! When I was studying music at Liverpool (too many years ago) it was performed by the students in the Anglican Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in the world, with a reverberation of nearly 9 seconds! You can imagine how it sounded! Like a piece of heaven.
    Fr Z is right, it is almost too painful to listen to. I think that is because of the sheer intensity of the sound, like a physical wall which we make contact with.
    One of the reasons the pipe organ is so important in liturgy, especially in larger buildings, is that it makes the air in the large spaces resonate, it physically moves in vibration. It is as if the building itself is giving praise to God. Other non acoustic instruments do not do this (eg, electric organ).
    Voices, especially in this type of music, polyphonic, with many simultaneously moving lines, also do what the pipe organ does.
    I believe this physical resonance really annoys the devil!

    Giuseppe, I agree about the beauty of Richard Strauss’s music. I do think my favourite of his is the “Four Last Songs” and have pondered how they may correspond to the four last things. Perhaps Strauss was, consciously or subcsciously, aware of this when he wrote the piece?
    I do love the Metamophosen too, I feel that it asks a question which it then answers, unlike Mahler whom I find infuriatingly verbose and rambling…
    Please, Mahler fans, that’s just my personal view!

  9. Diane at Te Deum Laudamus says:

    It’s fantastic to see this being sung in any parish!

    I love Tallis and the Tallis Scholars were the first choir I heard (on an old 33 record) singing this kind of music. It lifted me to the heights.

  10. Priam1184 says:

    Absolutely gorgeous! Every hymn (if I can use the word) I heard at Mass this morning had such inappropriate and childish piano backing attached to it and used the words “I” and “we” so many times that I wanted to rip my ears off… but listening to this calmed me back down. Thank you for putting it up Father.

  11. Andreas says:

    The Director of the Ensemble that is rehearsing is Mr. David Lang, the very gifted Artistic Director of the Reston Chorale and Music Director of St. John the Beloved Catholic Church. I had the opportunity some years ago to sing as part of Maestro Lang’s chamber choir at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Great Falls, VA….a splendid experience indeed! More information regarding the rehearsal shown in the video can be found by Googling ‘Spem in Alium Holy Comforter Parish and looking for the Eventbrite.com link (the link address is too long to reproduce here).

    Spem in Alium is a glorious work indeed. It might prove somewhat daunting to conduct and sing at first, but when it comes together and is sung in a Church with live acoustics, it becomes a flowing ocean of transcendent sound that truly engulfs the listener. Those who would ever doubt the existence of God need only listen to this. Should they thereafter come away still unmoved, then their souls are indeed but stone.

  12. Chatto says:

    My favourite recording is from The King’s Singers – a six piece, male only choir. For some reason, I just prefer the sound of the counter-tenor singing the high parts. There’s a video on You a Tube of them recording all the different sections, six parts at a time.

  13. Andreas says:

    Giuseppe wrote, “R. Strauss wrote no classically religious music, although he pretty much captured the essence of marriage and the loss of a spouse in old age with his final song in the Four Last Songs”. Might I add a slight correction, Giuseppe. Strauss composed a Mass in D major (TrV54/AV31) of four movements (Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei) for mixed chorus in 1877. He also composed a Motet in 1913 (“Die Schöpfung ist zur Ruh gegangen”) for soloists and SATB chorus, although it is not clear whether or not this was intended for liturgical use. Ref: http://imslp.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Richard_Strauss.

  14. Giuseppe says:

    @Andreas for pointing out those 2 pieces to me. Much appreciated!

  15. everett says:

    One might ask what such talented musicians do after a performance? Per one of my friends, apparently the answer is sing Palestrina at a local pub:


  16. Pastor Bonus says:


  17. juventutemDC says:

    We are so thankful for Chorus sine nomine’s singing and for Msgr. Pope’s sponsoring this. We also thank Fr. Bradley for his work!

  18. Mojoron says:

    Thomas Tallis is one of the bestest English composers along with his latent buddy Vaughn Williams whose Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is 15 minutes of heaven.

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