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Tallis: Spem in Alium

Here’s a hint: forty musicians can eat a lot of cake…

Legend has long had it that this monumental motet for forty voices was composed following an Italian composer’s English performance of his own forty-part work. Why, it was wondered, couldn’t there be a similarly impressive English work? For once, historical research backs up the juicy story, rather than disproving it! What has still remained iffy, though, was when and where the piece was first performed. The older story was that it had been performed in 1573 for Queen Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday, a happy numerical coincidence. An alternate account, perhaps even more amazing, is that the work was first performed around 1570 in an eight-sided performance hall. The performance possibilities of this octagonal architecture might have influenced Thomas Tallis, who organized the 40-voice work into eight sub-choirs of five singers each!

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