Embedded somewhere in the Christmas story is the idea of much being contained in a small space – or multum in parvo as the restored roadsigns leading into Rutland have it. The opposite, which I will leave you to chisel into Latin for yourselves, presumably gets less attention in the bible, yet nicely sets up any discussion of the current interest in writing choral music for 40 voices.
A performance of any 40-part piece is likely to guarantee a big crowd. Like dinosaurs, they attract attention merely on account of their size, though unlike these forebears they need a quite exceptionally large brain to control their bulk. The problem for the composer is obvious: how to make something interesting of such a massive canvas. Most of us can hum a good tune; some more talented can even imagine the possibility of two or three tunes going on at the same time. But to create a forty-part texture which lasts, say, ten minutes, simply stretches the human mind to its very limits.
The vogue for these colossi started in the first half of the 16th-century with Alessandro Striggio’s Ecce beatam lucem, followed in a few years by Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium. Tallis’s piece remains the sine qua non of all subsequent 40-part endeavour and has helped to set a scene today which gives young composers a real chance to establish themselves. The challenge is there: if someone could write a piece to go alongside the Tallis – by which I mean scored for the same forty voices, last ten minutes, and be as daring and dazzling in performance as the Tallis – then that person’s reputation could be made. Yet I have watched as composer after composer has failed the test. Either they have not had the resourcefulness to write properly in 40 parts, or they have not written music which is crying out for a second performance.
The current field known to me consists of the following: Robin Walker’s I have thee by the hand, O Man; Gabriel Jackson’s Sanctum est verum lumen; Antony Pitts’s XL; Errollyn Wallen’s When the wet wind sings; Carl Rütti’s Veni creator spiritus; Marcus Tristan Heathcock’s Next to nothing; Giles Swayne’s The Silent Land; Michael Zev Gordon’s Allele; and David Lang’s i never. It was intended that John Tavener’s Let not the Prince be silent should go with the Tallis, but somehow the 40-part scoring got lost in the creative process.
The most successful candidates were always going to be the ones who followed Tallis’s unusual layout – eight five-part choirs, not the more obvious ten four-part ones. The ideal would be to use the same forty singers (or multiples thereof) for the new pieces as for the Tallis and then present the public with a set of variations on a particular sound-world. Almost all the composers listed above have been quick to say that they followed Tallis’s lead, though on closer inspection one finds that Wallen does not really write for forty voices; Gordon, Rütti and Swayne at least double the length of the Tallis – the Rütti must be far longer; and Heathcock writes for five eight-part choirs. Swayne adds a cello part, which changes the essential sound-world. Only Gordon does not mention Tallis in his elaborate on-line blurb, being carried away with genomes and how the participating singers on his recording are singing their own genes. I wonder, though, why he chose to write for forty voices in the first place. Clearly this is some kind of a magic number for musicians which fifty, for example, seems not to be.
Robin Walker’s I have thee by the hand, O Man and Gabriel Jackson’s Sanctum est verum lumen are so far the stand-out compositions for me. I have thee by the hand, O Man probably follows Tallis the closest. Walker told me it took him a year to write – six months to conceive and another six to score – with a copy of the Tallis always open before him. What he achieves is the same almost symphonic sweep as Spem in alium, a single span of rapturous sound which, like so much renaissance music, exists without needing to have sudden changes of speed or dynamic imposed on it. Jackson’s Sanctum est verum lumen is just as fine if quite different in effect. Instead of sweep there is a constant succession of fascinating ideas and effects, jostling each other for attention like a sonic kaleidoscope.
I challenge our more adventurous choral societies to tackle these 40-parters by Tallis, Walker and Jackson. They should make a rivetting experience for singers and audiences alike. And the conductor may be reassured to know that I reckon the Tallis remains the most difficult of the three to pull off.
This article was published in the Spectator of January 7th, on which day the Tallis Scholars sang the 40-part motets of Tallis, Jackson and Walker in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.