It’s a precious thing to hear a piece of music which never leaves you. To be absolutely confident that you know and may never forget every twist of the soundscape. For me there is only one work that has so comprehensively captured my soul, and burnt itself in to my memory. It goes by the title Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui Prater In Te Deus Israel – I have never placed my hope in any other but you God of Israel. More digestibly it is simply Spem in Alium.

Hearing that piece for the first time at the BBC Proms of 2005 ignited a musical love affair with the composer Thomas Tallis, that has stayed with me ever since. This coming week, BBC Radio 3 profile Thomas Tallis as their Composer Of The Week (thank you Scott). No doubt they will tell the story of Tallis’s masterpiece, Spem in Alium.

As direct historical records regarding Tallis are so sketchy, we often have to interpret and extrapolate from circumstantial evidence. Here, for what it’s worth, is my take on how Spem in Alium came in to being. My puny efforts at the British Library notwithstanding, Radio 3’s take will no doubt be better researched! Do have a listen.

The world around Tallis

The 16th century transformed the face of our planet, with repercussions still visible today.
As religious wars scorched continents, so too a fire of Renaissance arts and culture blazed out of Italy. Rome was devising a new “Gregorian” calendar – to all intents and purposes the calendar we use today. Time itself was changing, and the new calendar quickly spread its wings across Europe and beyond.

Burgeoning sea travel and the rapid expansion of trading markets saw many things spread faster and wider than they ever had before. Everything from the new calendar, to Smallpox. National boundaries were ever more hotly defended even as their lines, their power, and their meaning, were disintegrating.

A new breed of ambitious rulers, not least among them our own Henry VIII, were turning their eyes and ambitions overseas as never before. Not only to the neighbouring country, but to continents beyond. Dukes could concern themselves with county matters, the country increasingly in the hands of senior nobility and even a fledgling civil service. British monarchs looked abroad, and for the first time they saw the whole globe.

As Francis Drake departed Plymouth on a cold December morning in 1577 to circumnavigate globe, another man was ascendant over all others in his own chosen field – the creation of music for Monarchs. At the height of his powers was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, the greatest composer of the day, Thomas Tallis.

Tallis the great

There, wearing a cap and working on what presumably is a musical score, is Tallis. Although sorry to say if he actually looked like that the likeness is quite by chance. This figure, which forms part of the Frieze of Parnassus at the base of the Albert Memorial in London was sculpted in the nineteenth century by Henry Hugh Armstead, with only a portrait of Tallis’ face from which to create this full likeness of the man. There’s considerable doubt over whether the creator of that portrait, in turn, ever saw the real face of Tallis.

Whether Tallis would recognise his features among this crowd we’ll never know. We’ll also never know whether he would have felt humbled or vindicated to appear among such illustrious company, for Tallis appears here a celebrated figure in a tableaux of the finest culture known to the Victorians. Grouped with English composers who followed him, Tallis’s score is held by William Lawes as Orlando Gibbons, in the middle, looks on. I must admit I enjoy the conceit that this trio of now lesser-known British composers appear to have turned their backs on, almost to be shunning, no lesser figures than Ludwig Van Beethoven to their right, and Henry Purcell to their left.

This monument celebrates Victoria and Victoriana at the heights of its powers, and for Tallis it is the the end of his story – immortalised in marble as Tallis the great composer.
By chance it was just over the road from the Albert Memorial, in the Royal Albert Hall, that I first heard Spem – by far and away the most prominent work of Tallis’s musical legacy.

Music of power and politics

Back in the sixteenth century, and ten years before Drake set sail for his epic circumnavigation, another prominent figure of the day was busy navigating the difficult political waters of England.
In 1567, from his vantage point high on a hill at Arundel Castle in Sussex, the fourth Duke of Norfolk must have felt exposed in more ways than one. The Duke, Thomas Howard, who in his early life had professed himself to be Catholic now served a Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I.

Despite new-found protestations of protestantism, Norfolk found himself overlooked by his monarch. So, proud and keen to restore himself to prominence, he supported an uprising against Elizabeth to be led by the Gentry of Northumberland and Durham. Their goal was to place Elizabeth’s cousin Mary on the throne, and in so doing return England to Catholicism, reverse the protestant scourge, return the Church of England to Rome, and steady their political fortunes.
As Norfolk schemed, a thirty year old Italian aristocrat by the name of Allesandro Striggio – a diplomat and young jewel of the Italian Renaissance – was walking England’s shores. As much as he was engaged in diplomacy, Striggio was to a degree on tour, showing off his latest compositions. Among them were two incredible works for thirty, forty, or even sixty individual singing voices. It was polyphonic music unlike anything heard before, and it was music which was to reach the ears of the Duke of Norfolk.

When the uprising in which Norfolk had placed his hopes failed, he was left in a precarious position. He opted to throw in his lot entirely with the Catholic insurgence, conspiring to wed Mary Queen of Scots, the cousin Elizabeth loved, adored, hated, and feared. It was a union which would have threatened in time to topple Elizabeth from a throne which already seemed to her highly unsteady. When Elizabeth learned of the proposed marriage, she forbad it, and slung Norfolk in jail.

At some point in these difficult years, as he fought to gain or regain the trust of his monarch, Norfolk recalled Striggio’s mighty music. Perhaps with an eye to his political standing, perhaps even with a mind to preserving his life, he settled upon commissioning a gift of song for his Queen. It was to be a piece which would surpass Striggio’s scores, and in so doing shine brighter than the very finest of Italian renaissance choral music. According to one contemporary account, Norfolk

“asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe [as Striggio], and Tallice beinge very skillful was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter”

This Tallis did, in extraordinary style, and the piece was first performed at Arundel House in London.

What Norfolk made of Spem in Alium, we don’t know. What his audience made of the piece, we don’t know. What Elizabeth herself made of it, we don’t know. But within two years of being released from his prison cell, Norfolk was dead. Executed for treason, this time accused of conspiring with the King of Spain again to place Mary on the throne. His titles and lands were forfeit, and the name of Howard slipped in to noble insignificance for four generations.
Norfolk went to the block little realising he would leave his own global mark, a centuries-lasting legacy in the form of his high-stakes musical commission.

Thirteen years later, when Tallis himself passed on, his pupil and partner William Byrd wrote a stark musical eulogy, ending desperately “Tallis is dead, and music dies.” It is the perfect footnote to the life of an extraordinary composer. Have a listen.

Categories: Music

1 Comment

Erika King · 6th October 2010 at 3:06 pm

Thanks for the thought provoking article. Would’nt it be great if one of our disgraced billionaire bankers were to commission another masterpiece in order to ingratiate him/herself to the powers that be. That would be one way of getting private sector for the arts moving.

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