Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Spem in alium

One of my favourite pieces of music is Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. I've known this piece for many years, but I truly fell in love with it in Canada, in a completely unexpected way.

I was visiting the National Gallery, which I always try to do when I visit Ottawa, to get my fix of Group of Seven paintings. Since I wasn't in a hurry, I allowed myself to wander more widely, and found myself in front of a rather uninviting doorway to what appeared to be an installation, with a thready stream of sound issuing from it. Under the glare of a fierce-looking guard (the guys in the National Gallery always seem to look at me as if they think I'm going to spit at the paintings – most off-putting) I drifted in, and found myself in heaven.

Well, not heaven, but Rideau Street Convent Chapel. This was once part of the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Ottawa, which was demolished in 1972. Local protest, however, saved the exquisite chapel, which has been reconstructed within the National Gallery. Despite being completely enclosed by the gallery, the stained glass windows give the impression of daylight shining in, bathing the glorious wood and gilding in gentle light.

At the time of my visit the chapel was being used for the installation Forty-Piece Motet by Jane Cardiff. Forty speakers encircle the central space, each one being used for one of the forty individual voices for which Spem in alium was written. The effect is as if you are surrounded by the 8 choirs which sing the work, with the sublime sound weaving and soaring around you and into the vaulted roofspace. At times a single voice peaks and holds your attention, at others you are enveloped in a wash of music. On that first occasion I sat entranced through the work twice, and went away only to return half an hour later. I visited the chapel three times in the week I was in Ottawa, and my first thought on returning home was to search for the perfect recording. At the moment my favourite is that sung by Magnificat, and directed by Philip Cave, which I chose because the separation is the voices is particularly clear (presumably because it was recorded in the round) and with a wonderfully warm and natural sound. Versions heard in the past simply sounded like a choral work and failed to catch the attention, whereas this almost gives the effect of listening to a new work on each occasion, depending on what thread you choose to follow, with unexpectedly rich and complex harmonies, or the single ribbon of melody from a soprano. This is one of the most lovely and remarkable works of English church music.

Spem in alium was sung at the memorial service for Ted Hughes in Westminster Abbey, a poet I admire greatly and once knew very slightly. It must have been a magnificent and moving occasion. The intimacy of Rideau Street Convent Chapel, however, provided a beautiful setting for this exquisite music, and I am profoundly grateful that I visited at the right time.


  1. How did you know ted hughes, albeit ever so slightly?

  2. That sounds wonderful! I probably won't get down to Ottawa while it's there, but our town's Summer Music Festival is presenting Cardiff's 40-piece motet. Can't wait!

  3. Wow, what a wonderful description of the chapel, which although I've been to the Art Gallery many times, have never found! It really must be in a dark corner....but then I rarely get off the first and second floors, there is so much to see. YOu like the Group of Seven, any painter or picture in particular, or all of them?
    I confess to being partial to the PreRaphaelites, so when I was in England I went to the Tate to see what they had!

  4. Ted Hughes was, a suppose, a family friend, although not a close one. He and his wife Carol used to visit the pub my mother ran, and he would be at parties. I, at 16 and a Plath addict, was too much in awe to do much except sit in silent wonder.

    Melanie, I envy you, I would love to hear it again.

    Susan, I guess I like Tom Thomson, predictably, and Lawren Harris, best, but I find them all interesting, and I can spend hours looking at their work. I like the Pre-Raphaelites too, though maybe not quite as much as I did in my younger days (my aunt once said that I looked as if I'd been turned down by Burne Jones!). Last week I saw Holman Hunt's "Light of the World" in the chapel at Keble College.

  5. My friend has Spem in alium as her ringtone... not sure if this is a good or bad thing!

  6. Very, very bad thing, I think, given what ringtones do to music!