Spem in Alium

It all started as a bet, really. The glittering Alessandro Striggio, fresh from the Medici court in Florence, had written a glorious Mass in 40&60 parts for Cosimo Medici who had dreams of being recognised as the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Striggio had gone on tour with his mass, doing the usual round of function gigs – various noble weddings, christenings, and gala dinners, not to mention the odd coronation and command performance, all with the idea of impressing the local nobs enough to support Cosimo in his quest for power.

While he was in Paris, Striggio fell in with some English guys who suggested that he take some time out in swinging 16th Century London, so he visited in 1567, to bum around the English Court with his new mates. We don’t know whether he came to Greenwich, but it won’t surprise me if they discover that he did – after all, the Court still spent a lot of time here. But it’s very likely that he brought his mass with him.

I know it doesn’t sound that exciting, but get this. There is no other piece of music in existence like Striggio’s Mass, which possibly accounts for the fact that Striggio was the highest-paid musician in the world – it took 200 years before any musician would be paid more.

The bulk of it is written in 40 parts – that’s not forty voices, arranged into the usual four parts – soprano, alto, tenor, bass. This is FORTY DIFFERENT LINES – forty voices weaving in and out of each other, each one different. And, in the Ave Maria at the end it bursts into SIXTY different voices, in what Davitt Moroney (more about him in a minute) reckons will sound like a giant vocal Mexican wave (note the future tense, folks.)

But back to funky Elizabethan London. Not surprisingly, Striggio’s Mass was a bit of a hit, but it stung a few toffs that it was was written by an Italian. Could no Englishman set such a song, the Duke of Norfolk wanted to know.

Thomas “Teflon” Tallis, a composer who managed to survive every court intrigue and religious controversy in this most flammable of reigns, rose to the challenge with his extraordinary 40-part motet, Spem in Alium sometime around 1570. Sadly for poor old Norfolk, it’s unlikely he ever heard it – by this point he was languishing in the Tower for one of ELizabeth’s periodic hissy fits. It got worse – he lost his head in 1572.

This is one of the most incredible pieces of music one will ever hear. It’s not long – about ten minutes at most – but the intensity of the voices is so powerful that frankly much longer and you’d be on the floor. It’s the musical equivalent to rich fruit cake – of exquisite taste and full of every good thing, but to be enjoyed in small doses.

It gets dusted down from time to time, not least by our very own Thomas Tallis Society Choir, whom I heard singing it a couple of years ago as part of the 400th anniversary of Tallis’s birth, in St Alfege’s church, where Tallis (and his wife) are buried. Tallis spent the last part of his life in Greenwich, in Stockwell St, if tradition is to be believed. Another fine performance was the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s installation last experienced at the Whitechapel Gallery, but which could stand a repeat booking in Greenwich in my humble opinion.

The next opportunity to hear Spem in Alium will be at the Prom next Tuesday – 17th July. Personally, I find the giant (lack of) acoustic in the Albert Hall is inferior to that of St Alfege’s,(which in turn bows to the chapel at the ORNC) but there is another reason to attend this particular concert – or at least listen to it on the radio.

Remember Striggio? Well, after his death, the manuscript for this amazing Mass got lost. It passed from pillar to post, library to library, disappearing completely during the French Revolution.

Enter Davitt Moroney, the Indiana Jones of the choral world. He spent 20 years searching for Striggio’s lost manuscript, a task that was made more difficult, he discovered later, because, presumably for travelling, it was all bound into a tiny ‘pocket’ version and wasn’t the whopping great score you might expect for sixty different parts. His search took him across Europe, to the libraries of all the great cities, searching through dusty tomes and scrutinising badly-scrawled catalogues.

He finally discovered the manuscript a year or so ago, in the Bibliotheque National in France. No wonder it had remained a secret for several hundred years. A sort of clerical Chinese whispers had been going on – every time the score had moved, it had been re catalogued with another spelling mistake – which Moroney was forced to follow through from the start. It had lain, undiscovered for centuries in the vaults as a FOUR part work by the obscure (read ‘non-existent’) composer ‘Strusco.’ Clearly no one until Davitt Moroney had been inspired enough by that particular catalogue entry to ever get it out of the cover.

Striggio’s 40&60 part Mass will be sung for the first time in 400-odd years on Tuesday 17th July at the Prom. No one knows quite what it will sound like, but I for one cannot wait to hear. My only other wish is that there will be a repeat performance in a place with proper acoustics – St Alfege’s will do nicely, don’t you think?


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