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Tallis in Lockdown: Spem in Alium

The arrival of COVID-19 early in 2020 swiftly put paid to Stile Antico’s normal activities. Our final concert before the pandemic was in Lancaster on 5th March, and soon after that it became clear that the major tours to Japan and the US we had planned for April and May could not go ahead. On 23rd March, the UK followed many of its European neighbours into lockdown.

We emerged from the initial shock determined to find a way to make music together. But what should we sing? We are often asked at concerts whether we’ve ever performed Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in alium; invariably we gently point out that it’s a tall order for a group of twelve singers. And so we resolved to turn the situation to our advantage, and to use technology to create something remotely that we could never have done ‘in real life’, releasing it to mark the milestone of the 40th day of UK lockdown.

Tallis’ monumental motet is scored for eight choirs of five voices, each comprised of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. Its form may have been suggested by the octagonal shape of the hall at Henry VIII’s Renaissance masterpiece, Nonsuch Palace, of which nothing now remains beyond pictures. The effect is always impressive, but often in performance it can be difficult to understand how the music is put together, and to work out exactly who is singing what. We wanted to produce a video which would not only do justice to the beauty of Tallis’ music, but also illuminate the structure of this extraordinary piece. Each choir is presented by a vertical column; singers appear only when they have music to sing, and so the remarkable texture of this music is brought vividly to life.

How we did it

Each member of the group filmed themselves on their smartphones singing up to five separate voice parts, whilst listening to a carefully created backing track. Then came the astonishing job of mixing forty separate audio tracks – recorded in a variety of acoustically unpromising bedrooms and studies – into a cohesive, well-balanced and colourful whole. All of this was undertaken by our tenor Benedict, who also created the beautiful and illuminating video montage – a labour of love comprising untold hours of work.

Supporting Us

In common with musicians the world over, our work was abruptly halted in March 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are hugely grateful that so many who watched our lockdown Spem in Alium felt moved to donate, either to the Stile Antico Foundation, or to Help Musicians, which offered much-needed assistance to many musicians in the early weeks of lockdown. We were particularly thrilled to welcome many new members to our Friends scheme; the assurance of regular support has enabled to us to pursue ambitious digital projects during this difficult time, and gives us great hope for the future. Much uncertainty remains as to when ‘normal’ music life will resume, and the need for support remains acute. Please don’t hesitate to contact us, or to join the Friends scheme, if you’d like to help!