Excerpt of “Spem in alium” by Thomas Tallis. Entire sheet music here.

Detail of “The Holy Family” by El Greco

Polyphonic music, beautiful voices coming together to linger on a short prayer or theme, is an antidote to the bustle of modern life.

Spem in Alium nunquam habui” (“I have never put my hope in any other but you”), created by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, is a ginormous forty part motet, composed for five choirs of eight voices each. Listening to it is an impressive experience, almost like Renaissance techno, as you can choose to follow any of the multifarious vocal threads as they expand, decrease, and weave together. Or you can sit back and be inundated by the music. (All the better with decent speakers — forty voices easily overwhelm our pitiful sound systems.)

In performance, this song is sublime. Ideally, the choirs are arranged circularly around the audience, allowing the song to rotate around or fully surround the listener.

Tallis’ story itself is rather interesting, considering that he was court composer under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, until he died in 1585. Needless to say, he had to be sensitive to the stylistic demands and religious preferences of each monarch, lest he lose his head. (“Spem in alium,” it seems, was composed in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.)

“Miserere mei, Deus” by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri is another super classic of polyphony. Set to Psalm 51, it is a sorrowful, poignant, and transcendent plea for forgiveness.

Gregorio Allegri – Miserere

Finally: Anonymous 4 is a female quartet which produces modern, accessible polyphonic music. Enjoy.

Anonymous 4 – O maria o felix puerpera


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