A remarkable 40-part contrapuntal motet
by the Tudor
composer Thomas Tallis
(1505-1585), arranged in eight choir
s of five voices. It opens with twenty voices entering successively with variation
s on the theme
; the other twenty gradually come in with new material; and all forty combine for the end. It is sweepingly, hauntingly beautiful.
It was not the first ever 40-part motet. In 1561 Alessandro Striggio had created his Ecce beatam lucem. The history of Spem in alium is not completely clear, but it may have been commissioned by Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, to rival this, and in celebration of the 40th birthday of Queen Elizabeth I. It was first performed in the Long Gallery of the Duke's London residence Arundel House in 1568 or 1569, according to one (credible) source, or was possibly composed in 1573, according to another. I presume this reflects uncertainty among scholars.
It was not published until 1888, and that was inaccurate; it was properly published in Tudor Church Music in 1928.
The name means "hope in others", from the first line of the Latin text: Spem in alium numquam habui praeter in te Deus Israel qui irasceris et propitius eris et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis. Domine Deus Creator coeli et terrae respice humilitatem nostram. "Hope in others have I never had, except in you God of Israel who will become angry and will be propitious and dismiss all sins of people in tribulation. Lord God Creator of heaven and earth look upon our humility."
Noded while listening to it on BBC Radio 3.