How Spem in Alium came to exist – supreme music of power and politics

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.