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.