Saturday, December 7, 2013

Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet at The Cloisters

Closing tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum/Cloisters in New York City:

The Forty Part Motet (2001), a sound installation by Janet Cardiff (Canadian, born 1957), will be the first presentation of contemporary art at The Cloisters. Regarded as the artist's masterwork, and consisting of forty high-fidelity speakers positioned on stands in a large oval configuration throughout the Fuentidueña Chapel, the fourteen-minute work, with a three-minute spoken interlude, will continuously play an eleven-minute reworking of the forty-part motet Spem in alium numquam habui (1556?/1573?) by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585). Spem in alium, which translates as "In No Other Is My Hope," is perhaps Tallis's most famous composition. Visitors are encouraged to walk among the loudspeakers and hear the individual unaccompanied voices—bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano—one part per speaker—as well as the polyphonic choral effect of the combined singers in an immersive experience. The Forty Part Motet is most often presented in a neutral gallery setting, but in this case the setting is the Cloisters' Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain, on permanent loan from the Spanish Government. Set within a churchlike gallery space, and with superb acoustics, it has for more than fifty years proved a fine venue for concerts of early music.

The article on Spem in alium suggests that Tallis wrote this brilliant piece during Mary I's reign, not during Elizabeth I's. After all, the words are drawn from the book of Judith, one of the Deutero-Canonical works usually omitted from Protestant Bibles. The conclusion is:

All these considerations together point to a planned premiere of Spem in alium in Nonsuch Palace in 1556, with Queen Mary Tudor as the intended dedicatee. In the event, that premiere seems not to have occurred—most likely because of the death of Fitzalan's son and daughter in 1556, and of his wife in 1557. The most likely first performance was therefore in 1559 or 1567, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. (The newly crowned Elizabeth spent five days at Nonsuch in August 1559, and we know from Wateridge's anecdote quoted above that the piece was performed in Arundel House in London; the date of that performance has now been determined to have been 1567.) Queen Elizabeth is therefore most likely the first English monarch to have heard Spem in alium, although the evidence suggests that it was composed for her half-sister, Queen Mary Tudor, as a fortieth-birthday present.

Spem in alium
Spem in alium nunquam
habui praeter in te, Deus Israel:
qui irasceris et propitius eris,
et omnia peccata hominum
in tribulatione dimittis:
Domine Deus, Creator caeli et
respice humilitatem nostram.

I have never put my hope in any
besides you, O God of Israel,
who grows angry, but then,
becoming gracious, forgives all the
sins of men in their tribulation:
Lord God, creator of heaven and
earth, look upon our lowliness.

I have read that one reason Spem in Alium is so popular now is that it's featured in that "grey" book series. The exhibit has had quite an effect on visitors and The Cloisters' website for the exhibit is quite detailed. Here is another review.

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