Spem in alium is undoubtedly one of the most famous works in Western classical music. Written in 1570, over 450 years ago, it still fascinates musicians, performers, and listeners alike. The piece by the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis is a motet written for eight choirs of five voices each (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass), with each choir having one of the voices doubled.
This means we are hearing a piece of polyphonic choral music consisting of 40 independent and separate parts, requiring at least 40 singers to perform. Like Allegri’s Miserere, it is regarded as one of the pivotal examples of polyphonic music from the Renaissance period.
The work begins with a single voice of the first choir, with each of the following voices joining in alignment and emulation before fading out one by one, thus moving the singing like a wave through the eight choirs. For a moment, all 40 voices resound together before the motion reverses, returning the wave of song from the eighth choir to the first. At the final culmination point, all 40 voices harmonize again in a resolving crescendo.
“Spem in alium nunquam habui”—I have never put my faith in any other—are words from the Latin version of a prayer spoken in the deuterocanonical scroll of Judith, who was one of a number of valiant Jewish females in Old Testament scripture who helped save their people when the majority had lost hope and courage.
Performed here in France’s Strasbourg Cathedral by the young singers of the Chœur Altitude, we offer this Music of the Week at the end of a year of major challenges, but also at the beginning of a year of crucial transformation that will call for all of our voices and efforts to come together in hope and in victory.
Spem In Alium, the 40-Voice Motet. An introduction by Dave Hurwitz on YouTube