Early Music for Breakfast

Digital illustration + text: Haiku on the Least Supper

If you haven’t already crossed paths with Thomas Tallis‘s landmark Renaissance motet Spem in alium, I highly recommend it. It’s a truly astounding piece of European music history, representing the confluence of the political and artistic competition for primacy in that time period; it’s believed to have been composed as England’s answer to Italy’s Alessandro Striggio‘s own, earlier 40-part motet, or possibly to Striggio’s 40-60 voice mass. I’m no musician, but I’ve learned, mostly through witnessing a few performances of the Tallis by different groups led by my husband and his colleagues, just what a feat this piece really represents.

While the creation of Striggio’s works for 40 and more independent voices is amazing in its own right, the 40-part motet he wrote specified that the voices be doubled instrumentally. That is impressive enough. For my fellow non-musicians, think of it this way: a typical piece of music for a mixed choir requires singers to perform different notes and lines of music, often at the same time, so that what is heard is not one single series of notes, one after the other the way we sing by ourselves, but layers of notes that become deeper and more distinctive expressions of the words being sung. Instrumental doubling means that some or all of the vocal parts are supported by one or more instruments “singing” the same notes at the same time. This can intensify the effect of that singer or section’s line, and it can sometimes also help a less skilled singer or choir stay on target with the line.

In any event, the more typical choral works tend to have soprano, alto, tenor and bass voice parts, or singing lines, (or some combination of those) and generally, not more than eight or perhaps twelve different lines intermingling at once. Anything more than that means that every singer in a moderate-sized choir is responsible for knowing and performing his or her own notes, on pitch, at the right moments, and with exactly the right loud-soft dynamics and flow at every point throughout the piece. Being in a choir is a thrill; being in a good choir is a real intellectual and artistic and even physical challenge.

What makes the Tallis Spem so incredible is that it comprises not only forty individual, fully independent singers’ voices all singing their own distinct parts of the song, but indeed, doing so entirely unaccompanied. Every one of the singers has to be spot-on at all times without the support of either a fellow singer or any kind of instrumental doubling. If one singer goes off the rails, there’s the possibility that others will be thrown off of their pitch, timing, or even their place in the whole work. It could well lead to a musical train wreck. Think you’d be intimidated by doing this? I think any sane person should be!

But it’s powerful stuff, when it’s well done. I’ve had the privilege of hearing this feat beautifully accomplished by singers surrounding me in a cavernous cathedral space, and by singers standing onstage in a modern performance hall with a carefully engineered acoustic. I’ve experienced it in art galleries where Janet Cardiff‘s intriguing installation of forty high fidelity speakers on stands are placed in a circle in the otherwise rather bare room, each playing in synchrony the recording of one of the singers in a performance of the Tallis, so that one can stand outside the circle or in the center of it surrounded by the speakers, or can move to stand at one individual speaker at a time, getting entirely different effects depending upon which part of the score is being performed and where one stands in relation to the speaker playing that part.

No matter how it’s done, once you’ve gotten a little of the idea how this piece of music intertwines voices that seem at first to be operating without a clear relationship but then, more and more, to be converging into a meditative, chant-like, layered song, it is quite mesmerizing. There are some recordings and performances out there on CD, iTunes, and YouTube worth a listen, and if you get the chance to visit the Cardiff installation, called simply Forty-Part Motet, do it. Best of all, of course, is if some fine choir nearby offers a live performance that you can attend. It’s rather haunting and ethereal, and made all the more impressive by the knowledge of its complex origins.

Meanwhile, I have given you this bite-sized humorous meditation on the work. A haiku seemed the ideal vehicle for acting as either commentary on or antidote to a choral masterpiece so complicated and virtuosic. And I sort of wonder if, in the process of composing this grand work, Mr. Tallis had any chance to stop for rest or was so deep in concentration that he barely had time to do the Renaissance equivalent of opening a tin of luncheon meat and dining directly from it, pen and parchment in one hand and dripping Spam juice on the other. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that this effort of his was entirely detrimental, let alone leading to his personal version of the Last Supper, since he went on to compose other fine works up until nearer his death some fifteen years later.