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June 13, 2006

One piece of music, 700 singers

The Guardian (UK):

Thomas Tallis, born (probably) 501 years ago, is famous for his setting of the motet Spem In Alium in 40 individual parts: eight choirs, five voices in each. It's the Grand National of the choral repertory.

A friend and I, hopeless sight readers, once tried to sing it at a workshop day with 38 capable singers and failed ignominously. But I sang Spem In Alium again at the weekend, with rather more success, mainly because there were rather more of us: about 700 singers (plus BBC4 cameras), gathered in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall in defiance of a heatwave and a lot of football.

This was not an attempt on a Tallis world record but it's a fair bet that SiA has never before been sung by so many singers. I shall boast of this to my grandchildren, although they will probably exclaim: "Stuff it, grandad", and reach for some hip-hop. I don't care. I was there on an extraordinary day and the multi-layered, majestic, polyphonic glory of the music is still playing in my head.

Tallis is said to have reached for his very long music paper to rise to a challenge after the Mantuan composer Alessandro Striggio arrived in London in 1567 with a copy of his 40-part motet Ecce Beatem Lucem under his arm. There are other big works from this period: the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem produced a 36-voice Deo Gratias and his countryman Josquin Desprez a 24-voice Qui Habitat. And the great Scots composer Robert Carver wrote an ear-grabbingly resonant 19-part setting of the mass.

Quite why composers were thinking big is not clear: perhaps they had rich patrons or wonderful singers or both. But the Tallis is the big one, with a superb dramatic moment when all singing stops dead and then begins again with the phrase "Respice humilitatem nostram" ("Look on our lowliness') on a beautifully crunching chord of supplication.

Rehearsals under conductor David Lawrence were cumulative: first choir one (with me and nine or so others on the bass line) and choir two together, then choirs three and four joining in and finally groups five to eight. Only at this point was it apparent that the piece is not just about notes scattered through 138 bars but about space.

The effect was better than anything the finest multi-speaker stereo system could produce. The first four choirs were down in the stalls, the second four closer to heaven in the circle. Phrases swayed from side to side, back and forth, up and down, flowing and interweaving into a delicate mist of sound. We sang the final mighty chord and stood amazed through the long, enveloping silence that followed.

Posted by acapnews at June 13, 2006 12:25 AM