Spem in Alium

Thomas Tallis

edited:Alistair Dixon

  Cat. 0027      
  Genre: Motet  
  Liturgical Use: Devotional (based on text from Matins: Historia Judith)  
  Vocal Disposition: 8 x SATBarB

  Price: £14.00 (score)
£14.00 (set of four part books)
(10 sets of four-part-books required for 40 singers)

At the time of its composition, Spem in Alium was without doubt the greatest musical achievement of its time. In many repects it remains unsurpassed.

The text is a respond from Sunday Matins during the reading of the history of Judith and quite why it was chosen is not apparent. Clearly Spem in alium is an occasional piece, presumably written for a great state occasion, and perhaps the most likely was the fortieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth in 1573. Tallis was well practised in the Elizabethan art of diplomacy, and to a cultured and music-loving queen a perfectly crafted 40 part motet would have been a most acceptable birthday gift!

The singers are grouped into eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass) and were probably intended to stand in a horse-shoe shape. The piece begins with a single voice from the first choir and gradually the voices enter in imitation and the sound moves around the line from choir one to choir eight. During the fortieth breve, all forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the process happens in reverse with the sound moving back from choir eight to choir one.

After another brief full section the choirs sing in pairs alternately throwing the sound across the space between them until finally all voices join for a full culmination to the work.

An interesting feature of the piece is that the total length of Spem in Alium is 69 longs. This happens to be the same number that is arrived at by taking Tallis' name, ascribing each of the letters of the latin alphabet a number—A=1, B=2 etc.—and summing the values. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to imagine that Tallis has signed his greatest, and perhaps greatest work in a way that ensures he is fully bound up with his creation for perpetuity.


BL Edgerton 3512

Text and Translation

Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te Deus Israel qui irasceris, et propitius eris et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis. Domine Deus creator caeli et terrae respice humilitatem nostram. I have never put my hope in any other but you, God of Israel, who will be angry and yet become again gracious, and who forgives all the sins of suffering man. Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, look upon our lowliness.

Editorial Procedures and Conventions

Clefs and signatures: The original clefs and signatures are indicated in the prefatory staves.
Note values and barring:
The original note values have been retained
Transposition: The pitch is unaltered
Voice designations and ranges:
The editorís voice designations are given after the prefatory staves. The ranges of each part are indicated at the pitch of the modern edition.
Accidentals given in the source are shown within the stave.
Accidentals which are implied by the rules of musica ficta are provided editorially above the notes.
Text and Underlay: Text underlay given explicitly in the source is printed in the normal serif typeface. Editorial verbal repetitions indicated in the source by the sign ij are shown in italics.

Click here to see
the first pages:

Choirs 1&2

Choirs 3&4

Click here to hear the opening bars