I was asked to write a 40-part motet, a companion piece for the famous Tallis setting of Spem In Alium, for the ORA Singers. I chose the Easter sprinkling song Vidi Aquam, and used the Tallis original as an inspiration in the way I utilised the eight five-voiced choirs, and how I moved the music from choir to choir, gradually building the sound up from one to forty voices, and making the music swing physically around the assembled singers.
To begin with the style hearkens back to the sound of sixteenth century polyphony, but gradually shifts into different, more modern textures. The strict counterpoint eventually subsides into a more impressionistic, hazy world where we hear closed mouth sounds and a ‘smudging’ of harmonies and textures. Sometimes there is a deliberate polytonal mixing of adjacent chords, highlighting the delayed echo effects that choirs can create in large, resonant buildings.
Like Tallis I use the full 40 voices only sparingly so as to emphasise certain high points in the text, like the ecstatic ‘alleluias’ or at the words ‘et omnes.’ I have attempted a painterly approach with all these voices, trying to use them like an orchestra on occasions to build rich and ethereal colours. The final, full-voiced ‘alleluia’ is extended, and involves an unexpected harmonic shift in the last few bars.
Choral level of difficulty: 4-5 (5 greatest)
This is the most extraordinary conception and really one of the most beautiful choral works I have encountered in recent years. To write a 40 part motet in the shadow of Tallis’s masterpiece Spem in Alium (eight five-part choirs) is a challenge of the first order by anyone’s calculation, but to write one which not only mirrors Tallis but positively enhances the experience of that earlier work is surely a mark of real genius and that is not a word to be bandied around lightly.
It was commissioned by Suzi Digby’s professional choir ORA to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the composition of Tallis’s motet in 2020. It was enterprisingly sponsored by a large group of people supporting one or two vocal parts each. And what a rich reward, as heard in a striking first public performance, COVID distanced, in the epic space of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. MacMillan takes the shapes of the Tallis in building his textures and managing the clarity which is one of the most impressive aspects of the work along with the contrapuntal skill of the interweaving of so many parts. He mirrors Tallis, too, in the great silences followed by a wall of 40-part choral sound, and occasionally bursts into a short section of frenetic activity. There are one or two harmonic surprises to keep us on our aural toes (mixing metaphors), and there are some heart-melting moments of such pure beauty that it quite takes the breath away.
This is not a work to be undertaken lightly. It is not easy and, as in the Tallis, it is easy for a singer to lose their way if counting fails or they simply lose confidence. But this is a work which should be widely known, performed and marvelled at and which underlines the stature of this remarkable composer.
Repertoire Note by Paul Spicer
"...the work excites the ears almost as much as Tallis's original. Indeed, in one area Spem in alium is surpassed, for the Latin text that MacMillan sets, an Easter 'sprinkling song' topped off with radiant hallelujahs, suits the music's engulfing waves much more than Tallis's prayerful words."