If you are in a choir, you have probably sung in a least two parts. You have probably sung in three, and there is a good chance you have sung in four.
But have you ever sung in 40? Chances are you haven’t but, for some of you, the answer just might be yes.
Enter Spem in alium. A 40-part (although there are versions with just three or four parts)Latin motet written in late 16th century by Thomas Tallis. It is written for eight different choirs with five parts each to sing, and is easily one of the most complicated songs in the history of music (don’t believe me? Take a look at the score). But why would anyone have been so silly as to write a song. It has such a ridiculous amount of parts that it wouldn’t even be worth counting.
The belief is that it is competition. You may want to think that the motives for writing such an incredible piece of music was 100 percent pure, but that may not be the case. It is quite likely that this song was written in response to a song written by an Italian composer, Alessandro Striggio, who wrote some songs with a very large amount of parts. According to a letter that was written around the time, a Duke (it is believed he was Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk) wondered if there was an Englishman who could create such incredible music. So Tallis set out to do so. And he succeeded.
But How Can That Many Parts Sound That Good?
That’s the big question isn’t it? Spem in Alium is written to be sung by eight choirs in a horseshoe or circular pattern. The music starts in choir one. After some time, choir two comes in and, a little while later, choir one falls silent. The music continues around the horseshoe pattern like this, then turns around and comes right back. The choirs do not all sing at once until the end. And at that point it is just breathtaking. You have never heard anything like it.
How Is A Piece Like This Written?
If I knew this, far more people would know who I am. What I do know is that it takes experience, and a lot of it, to be able to write something like that. Experience that I just do not have.
I would suggest you listen to it, if you can’t listen to the whole thing, then wait until you have time and come back.