The Story of Spem in alium
By George Steel

A look at the possible origins of - and the myth surrounding - the legendary motet for 40 voices by Thomas Tallis.


In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of ______ bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad[e] one of 40 p[ar]ts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other th[a]t the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke & gave yt him.


So goes the story of Spem in alium, the motet for 40 voices by Thomas Tallis whose very mention has 'Spem in alium' by Thomas Tallis, performed by the Tallis Scholars (available for purchase at Amazon.com) inspired awe in generations of choral singers. The performance of this sumptuous masterpiece by the Tallis Scholars and friends in New York on 16 and 17 March 2002, will do more than mark the culmination of the Miller Theater's "Mary Triumphant" series. It will also serve as an excellent case in point for the series' central thesis: that the reign of England's Queen Mary Tudor, far from being the dark period of cruel and chaotic misrule traditionally portrayed in English history, saw any number of magnificent cultural achievements, particularly in the realm of sacred music — and that many of the masterpieces of Tudor-era church music that were traditionally ascribed to the reigns of Elizabeth I or Henry VIII were more likely the fruits of the Catholic restoration under Mary.

Click here to listen to Spem in Alium, performed by the Tallis Scholars under director Peter Phillips, in streaming audio.
(The music will begin approximately 12 seconds into the stream.)

Caveat lector

The anecdote above comes from a letter written in 1611 by Thomas Wateridge, a law student, and was brought to modern attention in a 1982 article in the journal Early Music by Denis Stevens, the eminent English musicologist. Stevens nursed a hunch that Tallis could not have written this work for 40 voices sui generis, but rather must have modeled his work on the work of Alessandro Striggio, who had written a work for forty voices, Ecce beatam lucem, in 1561. Stevens takes "30" in the letter to be a misprint for "40," and thus sees Wateridge's letter as evidence that "the work could only have been Striggio's motet" though neither the title nor the composer is mentioned. (Interestingly, no one has proposed that the influence might have traveled the other way, from Tallis to Striggio.) Stevens then reasons that Tallis could only have known Striggio's 40-voice work after the latter came to London in 1567 (although there is no record of a meeting with Tallis, or of a performance of Ecce beatam lucem). Thus, reasons Stevens, Tallis must have written Spem in alium after 1567 — and thus during Elizabeth's reign.

However good a story the young law student's account makes, it seems clear in hindsight that Stevens overreached in his reasoning, pushing harder for a connection with Striggio than this letter alone can support.

A 17th-century (?) engraving of Thomas TallisThere is no musical or textual evidence, aside from the extraordinary number of voices involved, to suggest a connection between the two motets. Striggio's work is for ten four-part choirs; Tallis' work is for eight five-part choirs, each having the very English configuration of treble, mean [mezzo/alto], countertenor, tenor, and bass. Striggio's music makes considerable use of homophony, echoing Venetian practice; Tallis' work shows a more thoroughgoing interest in imitation, spending the first 39 bars running an exposition of the opening theme through all 40 voices (which join in a thrilling tutti in the 40th bar).

As for the circumstances of the tale's source, Wateridge got the anecdote, he wrote, from one Ellis Swayne; neither figure appears elsewhere in the historical record, and the letter was written in 1611, some 26 years after Tallis' death. Wateridge goes on to say that Spem in alium was performed at the 1610 coronation of Henry (son of James I) as Prince of Wales. That being the case, his anecdote seems likely to be a nationalistic, and apocryphal, fable.

No surviving manuscript of Spem in alium preserves the original Latin text underlay; actually written under the notes is a somewhat clumsy English contrafactum, "Sing and Glorify" (used at that 1610 coronation and on later ceremonial occasions), with the Latin written separately at the bottom. This fact is often taken to indicate that Spem must come from Elizabeth's reign. But Spem's Latin text is indicated in the manuscripts as the original — and that text is drawn from the biblical book of Judith as used in the Sarum (i.e., pre-Reformation English) liturgy of the Historia Judith.

Juditha Triumphans = Mary Triumphant

Daniel Page, in his dissertation Uniform and Catholic: Church Music in the Reign of Mary Tudor (1553–1558), has shown that Queen Mary was deliberately linked by court iconographers with the biblical Judith and that the troubled background to her coronation reinforced that connection.

Queen Mary Tudor (Hans Eworth, 1553)While Mary's claim to the throne should have been undisputed (her father, Henry VIII, listed her in line of succession immediately after her younger half-brother Edward), John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, had another scheme in mind. He persuaded the boy king Edward VI to pass over Mary and Elizabeth in favor of his own daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Gray, who famously reigned for nine days. In a stunning show of strength, Mary mustered her supporters, rode triumphantly into London to claim the throne, and beheaded the traitorous Northumberland.

Briefly, the story of Judith (as related in the Apocryphal book of the same name) runs thus: Judith (read: Mary), a pious and beautiful widow, defends her homeland from the Assyrian army by cutting off the head of its treacherous commander Holofernes (read: Northumberland).

At the time of Mary's coronation, the story of Judith would have been very fresh in the minds of the English, as it was rehearsed as a part of a short "season" in the Sarum liturgical calendar called the Historia Judith. Page points out that in 1553 — the year of Mary's coronation — the Historia Judith fell on the days immediately preceding the coronation itself, September 24–30, 1553. On the final day, September 30, Mary made her triumphal entry into London, where she was crowned Queen the following day, October 1. She had beheaded Northumberland only weeks before, on August 22. The parallels to Judith could not have been plainer to the populace of London.

Circumstantial evidence

The earliest surviving evidence of Spem in alium's existence is in a catalogue of the library at Nonsuch Palace made in 1596 lists "a song of fortie partes, made by Mr. Tallys." Denis Stevens takes this as further evidence of the motet's Elizabethan dating; I am persuaded that the circumstances argue all the more strongly for Spem's Marian provenance.

A drawing of Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel, late 16th century (British Museum)The long-demolished Nonsuch Palace was the last and most lavish of the great building projects undertaken by Henry VIII. Mary inherited Nonsuch upon her accession, and in 1556 she sold it to Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel. Fitzalan's son-in-law, Lord Lumley, inherited the house at his death. Under Fitzalan (and, later, his son-in-law Lord Lumley), Nonsuch was a great center for the Catholic cause and a hotspot for Catholic music. Stevens has suggested that Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk, was the "Duke of _______" in Wateridge's letter and that he commissioned Tallis' masterwork for performance at Nonsuch ("Arundell house").

Thomas Howard was, Stevens tells us, "the last of England's four dukes to survive the years of strife that bridged the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. Somerset had been executed in 1552, Northumberland in 1553, and Suffolk in 1554." But Howard did not merely "survive" Mary's reign — it was she who restored the title of Duke to him and his family. On her accession, Mary restored the earldom to Thomas's grandfather (his father Henry, Earl of Surrey, had been executed under Edward VI); on his grandfather's death in 1554, Thomas rose to the title.

If Howard commissioned the forty-part motet to honor a royal patron, it seems far more likely that Mary — the queen who restored the earldom of Norfolk to the Howard family and who sold Nonsuch to Fitzalan when she was 40 years of age —was the dedicatee, and that the text Spem in alium was chosen to allude to the Biblical heroine with whom she was identified.


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