First… the question you’ve been asking… how long is he going to persist in these obscurities?  The answer:  until I reach the magic number… 10!  So… we are almost there.  Second… what do you mean is and isn’t?  Well, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been drawing (almost exclusively) from the music of the latter 60’s and early 70’s for my selections.  This one is a little earlier… about 5oo years.  In that sense, you might think it less likely to make its way to the top of the Billboard charts.  Surprisingly (and somewhat annoyingly) this piece of music has enjoyed recent “widespread exposure”.  

“The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …

“‘What was that music?’ I mumble almost inarticulately.

“‘It’s called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.’

“‘It was … overwhelming.'”

It may not quite be what Thomas Tallis, the 16th-century court composer, had in mind when he composed his extraordinary devotional choral work, Spem in Alium. After all, it is a sacred motet expressing man’s hope and trust in the Lord.

But thanks to its role in this year’s publishing sensation Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James’s novel exploring the joys of sado-masochism, Tallis has reached the top of the UK classical music charts. The Tallis Scholars’ 1985 recording of Spem in Alium has outsold even the tenor Luciano Pavarotti to reach the number one slot.

(courtesy of The Guardian)

And I would have been blissfully ignorant of this fact had I not been doing a little research on the Tallis work.  First, I would submit that my fondness for Tallis is longstanding.  You may recall that I mentioned my particular fondness for Vaughan Williams’ Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis in an earlier post.  When we visited England and France last year I mentioned a concert at Salisbury Cathedral which (among other things) featured the work of Tallis.

Which brings me to my selection of this song for my “obscurities collection”.  We recently visited the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in Toronto to view an important exhibit of early Renaissance art (focused on the region in and around Florence).  In that we are hoping to visit Florence for a week in the fall, this visit seemed an appropriate preview to the main event.

The Florence skyline...
The Florence skyline…

And how does a visit to the AGO and a prospective trip to Florence relate to the work of Tallis.  Oddly enough, while we were at the gallery we heard the familiar sounds of Tallis’ Spem In Alium in the distance as we made our way from the exhibit.  Curious, we made our way to the source of the music and discovered a rather remarkable installation by Janet Cardiff.  Titled Forty-Part Motet, the soundscape is Spem in Alium by Tallis as performed (2001) by (co-incidentally) the Salisbury Cathedral Choir.  What makes the installation remarkable and extraordinarily moving is the placement of forty speakers in a large circle.  Each speaker records one voice part and listeners can either sit in the midst of this glorious soundscape and absorb the totality or wander from speaker to speaker and hear each individual contributor sing his/her part in the work.  Because the complexity of the piece can customarily only be fully appreciated when performed live (versus a typical recording), it is truly remarkable to experience this work in a “living” circle of voices.

If this notion seems a little difficult to appreciate, the video clip below will better illustrate what I’m trying to describe…

And, in case you’d like to hear the whole, beginning to end, throw on your headsets and have a listen…

In case your Latin (like mine) is a little rusty, the text translates roughly as…

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 humanity
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness.

So… obscure?  Only when placed on the same palette as this assemblage of unknown 60’s and 70’s pop songs.  The piece is arguably the most famous of  Tallis compositions and a pinnacle in vocal music repertoire for any period.

Thomas Tallis (ca. 1515-1585)
Thomas Tallis (ca. 1515-1585)

Makes me wonder what I’m going to come up with for #10!


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