Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tallis: Spem in alium

How many degrees of separation does it take to get from religious music by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis to the runaway "erotic" bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey? One. Because of its prominence in the book, Tallis's choral masterwork Spem in alium has risen to No. 1 on the UK classical charts, in a recording by the Tallis Scholars. Any way that a work with this much sublimity and grandeur can reach a wider audience is ok with us. For eight choirs, Tallis's immense motet may have been composed for Elizabeth I's birthday. It begins "Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te, Deus Israel" ("I have never put my hope in any other but in You, O God of Israel").  Seattle's alternative weekly The Stranger offers this listening guide:
The magic of this work rests in the individual parts sung by each of the 40 voices. A lesser composer would have concocted a bombastic mess, but Tallis deploys the voices artfully. The main vocal line passes from choir to choir, slowly piling strata upon strata of grandiose sound, which then subsides after a phrase or two. At the end of the piece, all 40 voices converge majestically, as if God had preordered a version of Ravel's Bolero but with angelic voices instead of the tick-tick-tick tidal wave of accumulating orchestral instruments.
One tip: Forget about following the Latin text. Choral composers of yore generally enjoyed the advantage of setting a well-known passage. They could expect that their educated listeners understood Latin and probably knew the text already. The uneducated were merely obliged to be tremulously worshipful. Today, we can revel in Tallis' astonishing layers of sound without the distracting gravity of meek religious belief.

A final note: if you're looking for the sublime in sacred vocal music, I could not recommend more heartily the boxed set Vivaldi: The Complete Sacred Music. Snap this one up folks!

11 comments:

  1. The zeitgeist of Fifty Shades of Gray is kind of incredible. I heard (though I have no source, so take it with a grain of salt) that rope sales at hardware supply stores have gone way up because of how Mr. Gray uses it in the books... Apparently, middle aged American women have started embracing certain practices. I never would have predicted something like this happening in Puritan America.

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    1. Yeow! I agree. See the review mentioned in reply to Cabaret Voltaire (if you have the stomach for it)

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    2. When the Seattle reviewer mentioned Ravel's Bolero, I should've known to what purpose the book would apply Spem in alium. Ravel's boring but rhythmic and increasingly loud work is often cited as an aide to "romance." Wagner's Liebestod is also (ab)used in this way--I am told.
      What would the composer say?

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  2. It's truly puzzling to witness the "Fifty Shades" mania. Now, the next step would be to infuse it with a bit more, ahem, literature.

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  3. “Spem in alium” is my all-time favorite classical piece. Many people might not notice the absence of instruments, so powerful is this ocean of voices. It is the crowning vocal composition of the Renaissance. “The distracting gravity of meek religious belief” is a curious phrase; Tallis’ masterpiece certainly isn’t meek, and is clearly a testament to his faith. The same “meekness” is responsible for the Alhambra, the great cathedrals, the works of Flannery O’Connor and Leo Tolstoy, and the music of Johnny Cash.

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    1. Frankly speakingJuly 19, 2012 at 5:37 PM

      I agree that the phrase is regrettable. The increasing secularization of our media-besotted world deems suspicious any hint of strong religious belief. Religious fanatics are suicide bombers, self-immolating monks, abortion doctor murderers. But strong religious beliefs have founded governments, inspired countless works of art and music, and comforted millions in their time of greatest need. The author sounds disdainful of all that, whether he intended to or not.

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    2. I knew that phrase would get a rise ... Muddleheaded to say the least. Iconography in the form of stained glass windows, statues, carved choir seats, etc. were all means to educate the populace, whether they knew Latin or not—not to mention sermons and the medieval mystery and morality plays.
      I'm so fascinated by the fact that Spem in alium is your favorite classical piece. Can you say anything about the various recordings, or are they all on a par? We are supposedly getting the Tallis, but I LOVE the one we have.
      Having read this review on Good Reads of the book, I honestly have to say that I'm thoroughly disgusted the piece was associated in any way with it. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/340987215

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    3. I read the review; it is as bad as I suspected, after having the book shoved into my face by advertisers. If a classical piece must languish in obscurity, so be it, rather than ride this smelly garbage truck straight to the nearest dump. Tomorrow no one will remember the book.

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  4. Agreed Wilhelm!!!!!! Concerning the post I have never listened to "Spem in alium" before, I definitely need to check out the piece. Cabaret I love "The distracting gravity of meek religious belief" quote!!!!

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  5. I hear the fifty shades of grey soundtrack is really amazing so I don't doubt that this selection is just as spectacular.

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  6. How does forgetting about following the Latin text, as the Seattle writer commands, make us any different from the "uneducated merely obliged to be tremulously worshipful?"
    We share with them ignorance of what the lyrics mean.

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