EASTERN EARLY MUSIC FORUM
Workshop on Spem in Alium
Tutored by Philip Thorby
N the hottest day of the year so far, 108
cheerful singers from
BECAUSE of the need to recruit
a large number of competent singers and the relatively central venue it was
decided to make the event a joint workshop between Eastern and
THE event was extremely well organised. Clifford Bartlett had done a sterling job in producing choir part editions in four volumes, each covering two of the five part choirs plus a very useful continuo line which was played on the organ by the Abbey's director of music Stephen Bullamore. While some may have regretted not having the full score which was over two foot square, these editions were much more manageable and it was easier to keep your place (helpful cues being inserted after long periods of rest). Clifford and Philip had consulted together on allocation of parts as explained in a detailed letter which also included handy information, such as how to get there, where to park and what facilities to expect. The result was that on arrival we searched for our name on which was marked our choir 1-8, then were handed an appropriate choir score. This meant that Philip could organise us in record time in a rough circle in the front nave, choir stalls and westward-facing seats in front of the altar.
PHILIP amused us by telling of his latest research into the origin of the text. He said it was a respond to a reading at Mattins, when there were five Sundays in September and the Book of Judith being exhausted the reading was from the Book of Esther! According to Clifford's preface the work was probably commissioned for private secular performance and consequently for two state occasions. It was never intended to be performed liturgically.
SPEM in Alium is a late work and Philip suggested that it contained elements of all the different styles Tallis had composed in from the elaborate polyphony of The Eton Choir Book era to the rather naive settings of music for the Reformed Church. Certainly my part in choir three had elements of both. I remember one eight-bar section where every note was off the beat.
THE music opens quietly and ethereally with the top two voices and gradually gets taken up by the others in turn. We were shown the full score where one could easily see the music gradually descend down the pages as the opening themes were passed round the choir. This is best heard when the singers are arranged in a semicircle as we were for our run through.
SIGNIFICANTLY it is not until bar forty (the number of parts) that everyone sings together for the first time. It was pointed out that the work was 138 bars in length, being exactly twice the number needed to spell Tallis in the Latin alphabet where j substitutes i. We rehearsed in sections starting in the middle where the music was more homophonic. One could notice from the start that the music was a combination of block chords and more elaborate figures which were passed around. Philip tried hard to get us to bring out these interesting parts. All too often Spem is just a glorious wall of sound. We were taught to sing the key word "Respice" to make it sound like a demand rather than an appeal. We were also told to point our phrasing, bringing out words like "habui". When the general pause occurred at the first "Respice", Philip avoided the pitfall of a lingering voice by relaxing the tempo and gathering us together.
WE had to break rather early for lunch at
12.00 because of a lunchtime concert being given on
the harpsichord by Stephen Bullamore. I took
advantage of the fine weather to picnic in the adjoining
INDEED! A mixed blessing was the fact that the abbey had an open door policy. It was very convenient to have tea, coffee and biscuits on tap all day and visitors wandering round were no trouble. Unfortunately during the afternoon session one or two people forgot themselves and there were some unwelcome rather loud conversations which did not help our concentration.
MEANWHILE, back to the singing. To emphasise the urgency of the latter part of the text Philip tried to hurry us on after the last "Respice"; I'm not sure how successful this was, it was like trying to hurry a juggernaut. Still the piece held firm and I'm sure the considerable audience of approaching 100 plus the singers enjoyed the final result. I would like to thank Philip, Clifford and Stephen for a most stimulating and pleasant day and for giving many the opportunity to work on and perform such a stunning piece.
Extracted from EEMF Newsletter 59, July 2005