Forty-Part Motet: The Beauty of the Human Voice

It is a strange blend of sacred and secular; a chapel in the middle of an art gallery.  As you enter, depending on the section of the motet, you will hear the Godly blend of soprano, alto, baritone, tenor and bass- or the introductory coughing or discussion before the motet begins.

The piece is Janet Cardiff’s  Forty Part Motet by Thomas Tallis (died in 1585), and the location is Canada’s capital: National Art Gallery of Ontario.

Thomas Tallis, a Renaissance artist,  was alive during one of the most tumultuous time periods in religious history.  He witnessed the see-saw of change from Catholic to Anglican- and vice verse, in Britain beginning with Henry VIII.  Despite all of these changes he weathered the storm and survived; focusing on the music rather than the doctrine.  It was during the reign of Queen Elisabeth I that he created the “Spem in Alium,” or “Hope in Any Other” that is played at the exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Canada.

The canvas is the Rideau Chapel, reconstructed out of the demolition of a convent –only the chapel remains.  It is a testament to Gothic and Eastern influence; arches spread overhead like the Egyptian lotus.  There is a soft blend of colours, like a ladies parlor of old; baby blue, gold and polished wood.  Four statues:  a balance of male and female, stand in sentinel.  The women look away in feminine aloofness the men search our souls in solemn silence- Bible in hand.

Forty speakers in a circle around the chapel represent eight choirs of five voices.  In Tomas Tallis’ time he probably would have requested a horseshoe formation. We hear them as they sing, and as they prepare for his song;  the beautiful ring of English lilt in preparation for the presentation. As they sing in the Chapel, you can close your eyes and imagine being in the company of angels.

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