spem in alium
40 voices. 8 choirs. 2 singers.
The 40-part motet „Spem in Alium“ by Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) is without doubt one of the most impressive compositions of music history. At the same time however, it imposes major difficulties for modern performers: it is almost impossible to find 40 singers whose voices blend with each other in ideal relations and melt together into a giant picture of sound.
multiple voices has accepted the vocal and mental challenge: to perform this monumental work with only two singers. Terry Wey’s and Ulfried Staber’s combined vocal range encompasses three-and-a-half octaves. Each singer takes two of the five parts each choir consists of, the middle part being split up between both of them. The result is striking: an almost supernatural vocal homogeneity that is simply not achievable in a traditional choir or ensemble performance.
Nevertheless, the main idea of this unique project was of a different nature: during an 8-hour performance, the 40-part motet „Spem in Alium“ can be experienced not vertically but horizontally, enabling the public to witness the actual process of Tallis’ composition. How often do we have the chance to follow such a complex and stunningly beautiful piece of music in all its individual parts, voice after voice, as if the composer was putting it down on paper at this very moment?
The forty voices are separately sung by the two musicians, and are then looped by a sound engineer into one of sixteen loudspeakers – two for each of the eight choirs – out of which one voice after another flows into the church. Like a gigantic Renaissance puzzle, voice after voice, the mystery of polyphony is unlocked for the spectator, until the 40-part composition is completed at the stroke of midnight.
Between the first tone of the first voice at 4:00pm and the dazzling conclusion at 12:00am, Terry Wey and Ulfried Staber embrace every single note of this monumental construction. The performance of “Spem in Alium” by only two singers bears witness to the breaking of a new day, whilst crowning the previous day with a glorious ending.