A couple of months ago I was asked by a friend if I wanted to take part in a scratch performance of Thomas Tallis’ choral piece Spem in Alium. Despite having done it once before and found it to be the musical equivalent of tightrope walking across Niagara Falls, I agreed to give it a go. So one of my tasks this summer has been to learn the part of Soprano 4 (I’ll explain more about that later.) Keen to get as much help as I could with learning the music I started browsing YouTube videos and that’s where I discovered, from reading the comments, that Spem in Alium is featured in 50 Shades of Grey. Well I never!
If, like me, you haven’t actually read 50 Shades of Grey, you might be wondering what Spem in Alium is all about. It was composed around 1570, during the reign of Elizabeth I, by the English composer Thomas Tallis and it translates as I have never put my hope in any other and not Spam in Garlic as my husband thought. It was written for a choir, but not just any old choir.
You probably know that choirs of the common or garden variety are split into four parts: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. If a composer wants to get fancy he might sub-divide those four parts, so you get soprano 1, soprano 2 or mezzo-soprano, alto 1, alto 2, tenor 1, tenor 2, baritone and bass, in other words eight parts. So far, so good. But Spem in Alium is split into FORTY parts! I think Tallis may have had one too many down the local tavern. Anyway, he managed to compose this amazing piece of music with forty different parts interweaving in and out of one another. The way it works is there are eight mini-choirs each consisting of five parts: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. Not all the choirs sing all the time, but this means there are bars and bars where you just have to count like mad and the chances of getting completely lost and not knowing where to come in are huge. As you can imagine, this piece is not often performed by amateur choirs unless for fun(!) So I’m busy trying to master the soprano line of choir number four ready for September. Wish me luck!
And this is what it sounds like: