In 1611 an English law student recorded the tale of a mysterious song first performed at the lost palace of Nonsuch:
In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere [ie. there] was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.
The reference is to Spem in alium (The Forty Parts), a devotional choral piece composed by Thomas Tallis. The text of the song comes from the Sarum rite response to the Book of Judith – the first line translates, I have never put my hope in any other but in You.*
One tradition is that The Forty Parts was first performed on Queen Elizabeth’s 40th birthday in 1573. Another is that the song was written for the late Queen Mary. It is certain that the song was adapted in the reign of James I to celebrate the investitures of the king’s sons, Henry and Charles.
The probable truth? The unnamed duke who challenged Tallis to make this music was Thomas Howard, a Catholic nobleman and suitor of the Queen of Scots, who was put to death in 1572 for treason. His inspiration came from hearing one of two polyphonic pieces by Alessandro Striggio, an Italian composer from the Medici court who visited London in 1567. Modern performers trace the influence to the Agnus Dei (at the breaking of the bread) from Striggio’s mass.
The Historical Dictionary of English music has an eloquent appreciation of the song:
“Few works of Renaissance polyphony can rival Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium in either grandeur or scale. Scored for 40 independent voices configured in eight different choirs, the motet is a compositional tour de force that combines masterful architectural control with rare sumptuouness of sound. In the main, the motet proceeds through its vast landscape as an imitative chain linking the various choirs, one by one, and then back again. To this basic framework, Tallis also adds ten-voice antiphonal dialogue and a few instances of full tutti, sometimes with active counterpoint, but never more memorably than with homophonic acclamations on the word respice (“consider”).”
A motet? Maybe from the latin movere, to move: the movement of the different voices against one another.** Modern singers find this a daunting experience, like a Mexican wave of voices in which they count the beats on faith.
The first performance probably took place in 1570 at Nonsuch Palace (at the time, Arundell House), inside an octagonal hall within one of the palace towers: the eight choirs faced each other across the balconies, surrounding the audience with their harmonies and counterpoint.
Youtube has many versions – here’s an amazing view of this weird Wall of Sound by smalin:
Someone got goosed at around 9:45!
In 2011 BBC3 broadcast a radio show devoted to the song and its influences – 1h 30m (requires Real Player).
* Spem, not sperm.
** The French mot is another source.
ps. The original link for the song on this post is here, with the amusing bum (pinched) note at 9:31. Plus there is a permanent sound installation in Canada, which projects the forty parts through forty speakers arranged in an oval.