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The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 07, 2013
Category: Classical

Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585) wrote glorious music under the watchful eye of four English monarchs, some Catholic, some not.

His hand never wavered. He composed choral music in English, Latin, French and Italian — whatever served the preference of his royal master.

And what he wrote!

Let’s just consider his 10-minute masterpiece, Spem in alium. Legend has it that he wrote it in response to a challenge from Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. The challenge: Could an Englishman write a better piece than Striggio’s 40-part Ecce beatum lautam? Tallis was then 65, not an age when composers are thought to be at the height of their powers. But he produced a work for eight choirs of five voices each. 

I repeat: eight choirs of five voices each.

After the first performance, Thomas Howard took a gold chain from around his neck and gave it to Tallis. [To buy this 2-CD set from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

Here’s Peter Phillips, creator and conductor of the Tallis Scholars, on this remarkable piece:

So outstanding is ‘Spem in alium’ that it still seems impossible that one mind without a computer could have managed it. To write for forty voices which do not repeat themselves in consecutive motion and not to lose control of the whole colossal edifice is to set a challenge which even the Art of Fugue scarcely rivals… Spem remains the ultimate technical challenge: supremely difficult to bring off, supremely rewarding when one comes near.

Please listen:

Other pieces are just as complex. For Peter Phillips — who founded the Tallis Scholars in 1978 and then mortgaged his house so he could start a record company — complexity is not the greatest challenge. No group tours more, no group releases more CDs. And no group is less rigid. Instead of castrati, Phillips goes modern and uses women. As for “authenticity,” it’s not a priority: “We have no idea what a Renaissance choir sounded like. I’m sure they didn’t sound anything like us.”

Longtime readers know I swoon over this group’s recording of the Allegri “Miserere.” And there is no more beautiful bargain than its Christmas album.

But this…this is pretty much the pinnacle. A bargain, to be sure: two hours and forty minutes of music for no more than $24. And worth much more — in a time when the ground is especially unstable and discord surrounds us, this stuff is, simply, gold.