A 1611 letter written by the law student Thomas Wateridge contains the following anecdote:
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.
Allowing the "30" to be a mistake, the Italian song referred to is either the 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem or the 40-60 voice mass Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, both by Alessandro Striggio, who is known to have visited London in June 1567 after a trip through Europe during which he arranged other performances of Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno.
This account is consistent with the catalogue entry at Nonsuch Palace: Arundel House was the London home of Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel; Nonsuch Palace was his country residence. Nonsuch possessed an octagonal banqueting hall, which in turn had four ﬁrst-ﬂoor balconies: it can be speculated that Tallis designed the music to be sung not only in the round, but with four of the eight five-part choirs singing from the balconies.
The Duke of the letter is thought to be Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and if so (and if the anecdote is trustworthy) the Duke's execution in 1572 gives a latest date for the composition of the work. Other historians, doubting the anecdote, have suggested that the first performance was on the occasion of Elizabeth's fortieth birthday in 1573. Other dates have been suggested, including the possibility that it was composed years earlier for Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's predecessor.
The effect on the listener of the sheer number of ideas contained in the work, compounded with the unusual performance practice of surrounding the audience with performers, is that of inundation, or of being completely overwhelmed.
The work is not often performed, as it requires at least forty singers capable of meeting its technical demands.
There is no early manuscript source giving the underlay for the Latin text: the 1610 copies give the underlay for the English contrafactum "Sing and glorify" (see below), with the Latin words given at the bottom.
Another version of this motet is featured in Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet (2001), an exhibition which is part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
The exhibit is set in the Rideau Street Chapel, which is the salvaged interior of a demolished school chapel that is now in permanent display at the National Gallery. Forty speakers are set around the Chapel, each one featuring a single voice of the forty-part choir. The result is a highly-enhanced polyphonic effect, as visitors may hear each individual voice through its corresponding speaker, or listen to the voices of the entire choir blending in together with varying intensities, as one moves around the Chapel. Previously it toured the world, including in early 2006 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it was a temporary installation in one of the contemporary rooms.
On 10 June 2006, the BBC asked for 1,000 singers to meet, rehearse and perform the piece in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester for what was almost certainly the largest performance of the piece in history. On that day, over 700 singers attended, most of whom had never sung the piece before. A program following the day's events was broadcast on BBC Four on December 9, 2006.
The piece featured prominently in the Poliakoff drama, Gideon's Daughter. Spem in alium accompanies the film Touching the Void, and reaches a climax when Yates and Simpson reach the summit of the mountain.
Tallis' Spem in alium has also inspired several modern composers to write 40-part choral works, for example Giles Swayne's The Silent Land (1998), Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's Tentatio (2006) and Peter McGarr's Love You Big as the Sky (2007). A London-based choral festival, the Tallis Festival, inspired by Spem in alium, commissioned both Mäntyjärvi and McGarr to compose in this genre.
Music: Sixteenth-Century Surround Sound ; Janet Cardiff Has Arranged Tallis's `Spem in Alium' for 40 Loudspeakers. Christopher Wood Investigates
May 20, 2001; Conceptual artist Janet Cardiff has an intimate relationship with her acoustic environment. "I keep a huge sound library," she...
STRIGGIO: Missa Ecco sì beato giorno. Ecce beatam lucem. Fuggi. O giovenil. Altr'io. D'ogni gratia. O der la bella. Caro dolce. Miser'oimé. V. GALILEI Contrapunto. TALLIS Spem in alium
Sep 01, 2011; STRIGGIO Missa Ecco sÃ¬ beato giorno, Ecce beatam lucem, Fuggi, O giovenil, Altr'io, D'ogni gratia, O der la bella. Caro dolce....
TALLIS: Spem in alium. Lamentations I, II. Videte miraculum. Dum transisset Sabbatum. Honor virtus. Loquebantur variis linguis
Nov 01, 2010; TALLIS Spem in alium. Lamentations I, II. Videte miraculum. Dum transisset Sabbatum. Honor virtus. Loquebantur variis linguis *...
STRIGGIO: Ecce beatam lucem. Missa Ecco si beato giorno. Fuggi, spene mia. O giovenil ardire. Altr'io che queste spighe. D'ogni gratia et d'amor. O de la bella Etruria invitto Duce. Caro dolce ben mio. Miser'oimè. GALILEI Contrapunto Secondo di BM. TALLIS Spem in alium/ STRIGGIO Ecce beatam lucem. Missa Ecco si beato giorno. TALLIS Spem in alium. The Making of Striggio
Nov 01, 2011; STRIGGIO Ecce beatam lucem. Missa Ecco si beato giorno. Fuggi, spene mia. O giovenil ardire. Altr'io che queste spighe. D'ogni...