Thursday, 8 October 2015

Tallis, Moore, Sprackland, National Poerty Day Spem in Alium

The Birkdale blog has written about Jean Sprackland before, this week she turns up on the radio in Essential Classics which is entirely appropriate as it is National Poetry Day.  You can hear her on iplayer and there will be a podcast later on if you come upon this after the full broadcast ceases to be available.

One of the pieces of music she chose was Spem in Alium  from Thomas Tallis -arguably the greatest English composer. In the broadcast she recalls hearing this 40 part motet at the Tate in Liverpool where and there was an art installation based on the piece by Janet Cardiff

The only time I have heard a live performance of the motet was in Liverpool Cathedral where the eight choir were arranged around the foot of the tower. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece even if it was written in response to an outburst of hurt national pride. The Italian composer Alessandro Striggio (c. 1536/1537 – February 29, 1592) wrote a 40 part motet Ecce beatam lucem for 40 independent voices. This was performed to great acclaim in London and the cry went up-is there not an English composer who can achieve such wonders. Tallis obliged. In Southport I notice that next Sunday at Holy Trinity there is a service dedicated to the piece.

It is not a surprise that there has always been an inwarding looking section of English opinion. Thankfully the open, outward looking majority in Britain always asserts itself. During national poetry day I heard read one of the best ever declaration of that more generous, liberal approach in a speech from a Shakespeare play, The Book of Sir Thomas Moore,  that I have never seen or heard performed.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires
,Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity. 


Here is Sir Ian McKellen performing the speech after first putting the piece in to context.