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Spem in Alium

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 terrae respice humilitatem nostram.


I have never put my hope in any other but you, God of Israel, who will be angry and yet become again gracious, and who forgives all the sins of suffering man. Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, look upon our lowliness. – Response to the 3rd reading of Matins during the V week of September according to the Sarum Rite, adapted from the book of Judith, chapter 9


I’ve loved music all my life. I sang hymns and TV commercials by age 3, started piano lessons at 5, sang in children’s choir and started with the adult choir about the age of 12. At 10, when I was asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told my parents I wanted a set of the recordings of Handel’s Messiah. I’d read about it in a book and was intrigued, and even more so once I heard it for the first time that Christmas. I’ve loved it ever since.


I’ve acquired a lot more favorites over the intervening years, everything from Rhapsody in Blue until I finally settled on favoring Renaissance and Baroque music. I like classical music and I have favorites acquired over the years, especially English church music, and most especially that sung by the clear, pure tones of a choir of men and boys singing in a great gothic church, the sound bouncing off the stonework and ornamented ceilings. It simply gives me chills and makes me wish so much to be present to hear it in person.


I listen to classical radio at night as I drift off to sleep. This past week, they have played one of my most favorite pieces several times, an unusual frequency for that particular piece. It was written by Thomas Tallis, one of the greatest English composers. The piece itself is composed for 5 choirs of 8 singers in each, totaling 40 separate voices. It is a fairly long piece, lasting about 9 minutes and 15 seconds, but it is so totally captivating, it seems like only a short time. Spem in Alium is adapted from the apocryphal book of Judith, chapter 9, entitled “The Prayer of Judith,” and is part of the daily readings in the Sarum Rite.


What Spem in Alium does for me is to make me feel calm, reverent, transcendent, and happy. I feel my soul lifting as the music increases in volume and complexity, until it feels like it is coming out of the top of my head and rising to the very throne of God. It isn’t a melody I can whistle or sing as I move around the house, but it never fails to captivate me, no matter what is going on or what I am doing. That’s a wonderful thing about music. I think all of us has some piece of music that does that for us, and isn’t it wonderful when it does?


Music has a history in the Bible. Jubal, a descendant of Cain through Cain’s son Enoch, has been named in Genesis 4:21 as the father of all those who play stringed instruments (harp, lyre) and pipes (flute). Children are taught the song about Little David the shepherd boy who grew to be a musician called to aid the King (Saul) in his melancholia. Later, David became king and danced in front of the ark of the covenant (unclothed, which seems as scandalous to us as it was to David’s wife). David is credited with writing psalms that are hymns to which we have no existing music, but we have created new settings for them. Psalm 150 lists instruments praising God and is one of the favorites of composers.  Angels sang at various times, especially at the birth of Jesus. Music wends its way through the whole Bible, and Biblical passages and stories have frequently been turned into compositions for both liturgical and concert use.


Judith is not a book that is read often, so it is unfamiliar to most. Toni Craven has written a very interesting and informative commentary on the apocryphal book which is available at the Jewish Women’s Archive, Encyclopedia. Judith is a widow noted for her wisdom. This gives her some credibility with the local leaders, and she uses this credibility to set everything on the right path from which the leaders have forsaken. Chapter 9 is noted as the “Prayer of Judith, ” where she begs God to give her, a woman, the power and ability to lie convincingly.  It’s not a first for a woman in the Bible to use wiles and half-truths to accomplish something that would otherwise not happen, but Judith was recorded as a bit more forthcoming with what she wanted and why.  A bit of that prayer was adapted into the response that inspired Tallis to compose the musical setting in c. 1570.


I loved the motet long before I found a translation of it, but reading it in English makes it even more dear. The words are those of faith and trust in God no matter what the situation. Those are words and feelings that are always good to remember and acknowledge. 


I heard this piece again last night as I was trying to go to sleep. Thinking of not only the intricate harmonies but also about the words, I found myself drifting off to sleep quite peacefully. I’m not necessarily recommending it as a sleeping aid, but it worked for me, at least once. Do give it a listen and see what feelings and thoughts arise in you as you hear it. 


God bless. 


Tallis, Thomas,  Spem in Allium, sung by King’s College Choir, Stephen Cleobury, conductor. Licensed by UMG (on behalf of Universal Music); Public Domain Compositions. Found on YouTube.

*Judith: Apocrypha by Toni Craven, found at Jewish Women’s Archive, Encyclopedia.

Image: Spem in Alium score, found at via Wikimedia Commons. Excerpted from essay by Brian van der Spuy, 2017.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.


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