Thomas Tallis, who began his career as an organist in Dover, ended it as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal with an exclusive licence from Queen Elizabeth I to print and publish his works. As a church musician he experienced the shift from the Roman to the Anglican rite (interrupted by a reversion to Catholicism during the reign of Mary Tudor). Tallis was probably in his mid-60s when he composed the 40-part motet Spem in alium, probably for the octagonal banqueting hall of Nonsuch Palace, the residence of Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. There it could have been performed “in the round”, with the singers positioned in the four balconies surrounding the listeners. Later composers like Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler would make similar use of spatial disposition to differentiate between separated groups of musicians.
Antonio Lotti made his name as an opera composer, later concentrating on sacred music as master of music at St. Mark’s, Venice. Thirty years after Lotti’s death, in 1770, Charles Burney could still hear his music in Venice, and he was amazed at how little of the Baroque was detectible in it and how closely tied Lotti’s music still was with the model of classical polyphony: “… grave and majestic, consisting of fugues and imitations in the style of best old church services”.
The tradition of European vocal polyphony is a significant aspect of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. On completing it, he referred to the work as “the grandest thing I have done yet”, while the concert promoter before the premiere came up with the hyped-up nickname of “Symphony of a Thousand”. The gigantic orchestral apparatus chiefly functions as a composed-out resonating space for the entries of the huge mixed chorus, boys’ choir and vocal soloists. “Can you imagine a symphony that is sung throughout, from beginning to end?”, asked Mahler in another letter. He could, and so he joined up a medieval Whitsun hymn text to the “Chorus mysticus” from the end of Part II of Goethe’s Faust. The human voice in the Eighth becomes an orchestral instrument, employed with a huge variety of shadings: tender solos, massive chordal blocks, knotty fugues and expressive ensembles. Some find the Eighth too affirmative, missing breaches and fissures. But when this monumental choral symphony, this enormous exertion of force by an already mortally ill composer shortly before World War I, the breach that put paid to all certainty, culminates in Goethe’s words “All that is transitory is only an image”, is that not a sufficient indication of scepticism and doubt?
Antonio Lotti [1667–1740]
Cruzifixus in C minor for eight-part choir a cappella
Thomas Tallis [1505–1585]
Spem in alium for eight five-part choirs a cappella [around 1575]
Gustav Mahler [1860–1911]
Symphony No. 8 in B flat major [1906/07]
1st part: Hymnus Veni creator spiritus
2nd part: Final scene from Goethe’s Faust II
Erika Sunnegardh, Susan Bullock, Anna Prohaska soprano 1 – 3
Karen Cargill, Nathalie Stutzmann alto 1 – 2
Johan Botha tenor
David Wilson-Johnson baritone
John Relyea bass
Simon Halsey coach
MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Howard Arman coach
Staats- und Domchor Berlin
Kai-Uwe Jirka coach
Sir Simon Rattle conductor