Spem in alium

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Composer Thomas Tallis

Spem in alium (Latin for "Hope in any other") is a 40-part Renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis, composed in c. 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each, considered by some critics to be the greatest piece of English early music. Along with Tallis's Lamentations, H. B. Collins described it in 1929 as Tallis's "crowning achievement".[1]


The early history of the work is obscure. It is listed in a catalogue of the library at Nonsuch Palace made in 1596 as "a song of fortie partes, made by Mr. Tallys". The earliest surviving manuscripts are those prepared in 1610 for the investiture of Henry Frederick, the son of James I, as Prince of Wales.

A 1611 letter written by the law student Thomas Wateridge contains the following anecdote:

In Queen Elizabeth's time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] 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.[2]

Allowing the "30" to be a mistake, the Italian song referred to is either the 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem or the 40–60-voice mass Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, both by Alessandro Striggio, who is known to have visited London in June 1567 after a trip through Europe during which he arranged other performances of Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno.[3]

This account is consistent with the catalogue entry at Nonsuch Palace: Arundel House was the London home of Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel; Nonsuch Palace was his country residence. Nonsuch possessed an octagonal banqueting hall, which in turn had four first-floor balconies: it can be speculated that Tallis designed the music to be sung not only in the round, but with four of the eight five-part choirs singing from the balconies.

The Duke of the letter is thought to be Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and if so (and if the anecdote is trustworthy) the Duke's execution in 1572 gives a latest date for the composition of the work. Other historians, doubting the anecdote, have suggested that the first performance was on the occasion of Elizabeth's fortieth birthday in 1573.[4] Other dates have been suggested, including the possibility that it was composed years earlier for Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's predecessor.[5]

An early score of the work currently resides at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where it was part of an exhibition shown in 2008–09 detailing 1000 years of British choral music.[6] Another early score of the work resides at the British Library, London in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery where it was part of an exhibition shown in 2014–15 titled, "Treasures of the British Library".[citation needed]


The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). It is most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally all voices join for the culmination of the work. Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its elegant harmonic framework, allowing for a large number of individual musical ideas to be sung during its ten- to twelve-minute performance time. The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mess, the work is continually presenting new ideas.



The original Latin text of the motet is from a response (at Matins, for the 3rd Lesson, during the V week of September), in the Sarum Rite, adapted from the Book of Judith. Today the response appears in the Divine Office of the Latin rite in the Office of Readings (formerly called Matins) following the first lesson on Tuesday of the 29th Week of the Year.

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 terrae
respice humilitatem nostram

There is no early manuscript source giving the underlay for the Latin text: the 1610 copies give the underlay for the English contrafactum "Sing and glorify" (see below), with the Latin words given at the bottom.

English 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

English contrafactum

Contrafactum sung at the 1610 investiture of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Sing and glorify heaven's high Majesty,
Author of this blessed harmony;
Sound divine praises
With melodious graces;
This is the day, holy day, happy day,
For ever give it greeting, Love and joy
heart and voice meeting:
Live Henry princely and mighty,
Harry live in thy creation happy.


Recordings include those by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral; the Tallis Scholars, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the Oxford Camerata; the Choirs of King's and St John's Colleges, Cambridge; The Sixteen; The Clerkes of Oxenford; Huelgas Ensemble; Philip Cave's Magnificat; and, the British male acapella group, the King's Singers. This recording is particularly noteworthy, since the group is composed of just six men: all forty parts are performed by these six via multitracking. The Kronos Quartet has also recorded an instrumental version of the motet on their album Black Angels. Cellist Peter Gregson has also multitracked Spem in Alium, performing all 40 parts on one cello. I Fagiolini have recorded it alongside a 40 part motet by Alessandro Striggio, with continuo, cornetts and sackbuts.

Another version of this motet is featured in Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet (2001), an exhibition which is part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and of Inhotim in Brumadinho, Brazil. The Ottawa exhibit is set in the Rideau Street Chapel, which is the salvaged interior of a demolished convent chapel that is now in permanent display at the National Gallery. Forty speakers are set around the Chapel, each one featuring a single voice of the 40-part choir. The result is a highly enhanced polyphonic effect, as visitors may hear each individual voice through its corresponding speaker, or listen to the voices of the entire choir blending in together with varying intensities, as one moves around the Chapel.

On 10 June 2006, the BBC asked for 1,000 singers to meet, rehearse and perform the piece in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester for what was almost certainly the largest performance of the piece in history. On that day, over 700 singers attended, most of whom had never sung the piece before. A programme following the day's events was broadcast on BBC Four on December 9, 2006.[7][not in citation given][8][not in citation given][9]

Spem in alium features prominently in the Poliakoff drama, Gideon's Daughter. It also accompanies the film Touching the Void, and reaches a climax when Yates and Simpson reach the summit of the mountain. Mention of the work in the 2011 erotic romance, Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, resulted in the Tallis Scholars' 1985 recording rising to the top of the UK Classical Chart in July 2012.[10] It is also mentioned in an erotic context in the 1997 novel, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman.[11]

Tallis's Spem in alium has also inspired several modern composers to write 40-part choral works, for example Giles Swayne's The Silent Land (1998), Robert Hanson's And There Shall Be No Night There (2002), Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's Tentatio (2006) and Peter McGarr's Love You Big as the Sky (2007). A London-based choral festival, the Tallis Festival, inspired by Spem in alium, commissioned both Mäntyjärvi and McGarr to compose in this genre.[citation needed]


  • Davitt Moroney, "Alessandro Striggio's Mass in Forty and Sixty Parts". Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 1–69. ISSN 0003-0139.


  1. H. B. Collins, "Thomas Tallis", Music & Letters 10, no. 2 (April 1929): 152–66, citation on 162; Suzanne Cole, Thomas Tallis and His Music in Victorian England,[page needed]
  2. Cole, Suzanne (2008). Thomas Tallis and His Music in Victorian England. Boydell. p. 97. ISBN 978-1-84383-380-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Moroney, pp. 28-33.
  4. Thomas Kahlcke, in sleevenotes to "The Tallis Scholars: Best of the Renaissance" (Philips 1999)
  5. George Steel (March 2002). "The Story of Spem in alium". Andante. Archived from the original on April 26, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Bodleian Libraries Website". Retrieved 17 February 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "People's Chorus". BBC.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Programme info". BBC.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "The People's Chorus". BBC.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Higgins, Charlotte (16 July 2012). "Fifty Shades of Grey sends sales of Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium soaring". www.theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 25 September 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Ullman, Ellen (1997) Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents City Lights Publishers (2001), ISBN 9780872863323 (Chapter 2: "Sushi")

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