Sunday, November 15, 2009

Surprised by Tallis

Imagine if you will, being seated in a room with eight sides. On each side is a chorus of five voices -- soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass -- making a total of forty voices, and each one has their own part. Thus would be the setting for a motet by the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) entitled Spem in alium nunquam habui. It was composed in 1570, supposedly for the occasion of the Queen's 40th birthday in 1573, and is considered to be one of the greatest pieces of Renaissance polyphony.

Spem in alium numquam habui praeter in te,
    I have never put my hope in any other but in you,
Deus Israel
    O God of Israel
qui irasceris
    who can show both anger
et propitius eris,
    and graciousness,
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis.
    and who absolves all the sins of suffering man.
Domine Deus
    Lord God,
Creator coeli et terrae,
    Creator of Heaven and Earth,
respice humilitatem nostram.
    be mindful of our lowliness.

The Latin text was originally a responsory in the Sarum Rite (at Matins, for the 3rd Lesson, during the V week of September), adapted from the Book of Judith. In the reformed Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Rite, it appears in the Office of Readings (formerly called Matins) following the first lesson on Tuesday of the 29th Week of Ordinary Time.

Those moderately boring details aside, it sounds totally awesome when heard as described above, or even remotely that way. Of course, the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center only had four sides and not eight, but that didn't stop the Choral Arts Society from giving it a go today, and it was (oh, yes, it was) awesome. I obtained a copy of the score for my music library a couple of years ago, but never had a chance to hear it. Then a gentleman from the Society extended an invitation to one of the priests. It seems the good Father needed a driver, and after a very hectic week in which I had little time for my writing, I found an opening in my schedule.

There were other great works sung today, including those by Gabrielli, Tavener, and others. But this one was my favorite. A commentary on the piece by Wikipedia describes it thus:

Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its fairly simple harmonic framework; allowing for an astonishing 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 to the listener.

The effect on the listener of the sheer number of ideas contained in the work, compounded with the unusual performance practice of surrounding the audience with performers, is that of inundation, or of being completely overwhelmed.

The work is not often performed, as it requires at least forty singers capable of meeting its technical demands.

The discipline that comes with performing the masterpiece is highlighted in the importance of the conductor and the performers alike. Whilst performers are distributed throughout a venue, the conductor becomes truly the hub for the piece throughout, as often there is little or no visibility between the performers, and a large venue will present acoustical challenges, not regarded with traditional choirs co-located.

Various editions of the score are available from the Choral Public Domain Library. To get a peek at the full score, click here.

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