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‘Tallys’ and the postmodern sublime.


THE CLOISTERS, UPPER MANHATTAN — 19 October 2013, in the midst of Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Forty Part Motet’ (2001), an ellipse of hi-fi speakers arranged within the re-erected Fuentidueña Chapel. The performance, which runs continuously, is an eleven-minute recording of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium nunquam habui, within this elaborately reconstructed venue, including a three-minute interlude of background chattering choristers, grabbed between takes. We are loitering in the late twelfth-century apse of the church of San Martin, part of an extensive castle complex from Segovia. This is legacy from the Great Depression decade, scrupulously reconstructed at Fort Tryon Park, under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation, between 1934 and 1939.

Each of the forty speakers, mounted about person-high on a single black stand, carries an individual voice: bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano. The performance was created as a sound sculpture for the Salisbury Festival in 2000, drawing on the Salisbury Cathedral choir, among others: eight choirs of five voices each, but for the recording, thirty-two adult male singers and twenty-seven boy and girl soprano voices in all. The adult singers were recorded individually, while the children were grouped together to create a more consistent sound texture for the soprano parts, then the fifty-nine tracks were edited down to forty by George Bures Miller. He and Cardiff also included three minutes of the choristers between takes, the human sound-world from which the sublime unities of the motet emerge. The installation has been set up around the world by Janet Cardiff’s Tonmeister, Titus Maderlechner, of Berlin, who tunes the acoustic arrangement precisely to each location. The piece has now performed in some thirty venues, and was included in a survey of Janet Cardiff’s work at MoMA’s PS1gallery, opening, fortuitously, just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 2001.1

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 coeli et terrae, respice humilitatem nostram.

I have never put my hope in any other but you, God of Israel
who will be angered yet become again gracious
and who forgives all the sins of struggling man:
Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth, be mindful of our worthlessness.

THOMAS TALLIS (1505?–1585) lived what can appear to be a blessed life, working as singer, organist, wearied administrator no doubt, and composer, as a ‘Gentleman of King Henry the Eyghts Chapel, King Edward, Queen Mary & of her Maiesties that now is, Queen Elizabeth’.2

That is, Tallis survived the transition from state Catholicism, through the volatile period of the English Reformation, and ended his life as a venerated musician of the Chapel Royal for Protestant Elizabeth, serving through more than half of her reign. Tallis seems never to have renounced his own Catholic faith, or at least the evidence suggests that he remained more sympathetic to the belief of his youth than to reformed Christianity. William Byrd was almost certainly one of his pupils, and Tallis stood as godfather for Byrd’s second son, William. He married Joan (surname unknown) around 1552, and they had no children; the average age to marry for men around 1600 was in their late twenties, and for women, their mid twenties.3 Was the marriage of Thomas and Joan a late, ‘companionate’ marriage? Joan Tallis outlived her husband by four years; he is buried in the chancel of St Alphege, Greenwich, where an elegy mourns him:

As he dyd lyve, so also did he dy,
In myld and quyet Sort (O! Happy Man).

Spem in alium is one of the supreme choral works of the European Renaissance, but the circumstances of its composition are debated: was it made to celebrate the fortieth birthday of Queen Mary I, 16 February 1556, or for the fortieth birthday of Elizabeth I, 7 September 1573? Why should this be of any interest at all? It was almost certainly of absolutely no interest to many of the people with whom I shared the experience of Janet Cardiff’s sound sculpture. They were standing or sitting, eyes closed, clearly absolutely taken, transfixed, calmed and inspired. One of the most striking effects of the work, thanks to the elaborate precision of its recording, was that as you moved from speaker to speaker, each individual voice emerged, often singing by no means perfectly, the effort of one person making their contribution to a unity that, brought together, becomes flawlessly compelling. How many voices might be joined to make a single voice? In what ways were the listeners responding to this high-spec performance within a scrupulously mediaeval facsimile venue, itself the creation of troubled times, and which similarly ravished me?


Levina Teerlinc - Royal Maundy

Levina Teerlinc, ‘Royal Maundy’, c. 1562/5.

THERE ARE THOUGHT to be no images of Thomas Tallis surviving from his own lifetime; the commonly reproduced engravings and paintings were made more than a century later. So here is a possible discovery. Levina Teerlinc’s miniature representing ‘Royal Maundy’, from the early to mid 1560s, was almost certainly painted for the queen herself, and includes a snapshot of the choristers and gentlemen of the Chapel Royal in the background.

Elizabeth was famously parsimonious, and chose not to employ an artist specifically tasked with creating her image for wider circulation; demand for portraits of the monarch was predictably intense, and throughout the 1560s and 1570s inaccurate, even unflattering images of Elizabeth circulated in London and beyond, to the disquiet of court ‘public relations’ officials.

Elizabeth herself was charmed by portrait miniatures, and Levina Teerlinc, daughter of Katharina Scroo and Simon Bening (Benninck), became the queen’s most favoured artist during the first two decades of her reign. Levina, born in Bruges around 1520, had arrived in England with her husband, George Teerlinc of Blankenberge, in 1546. Her father was one of the leading illuminator-miniaturists of the Ghent-Bruges school, and she came to take up the prestigious position of ‘paintrix’4 to Henry VIII; her husband was made a gentleman pensioner, a member of the monarch’s ‘nearest guard’ serving in the presence chamber itself. Teerlinc’s father had probably trained his daughter (the oldest of six) as a manuscript painter, to work in his own studio; his father, Alexander Bening, had also been a celebrated miniaturist. At some point Levina was apprenticed to Giulio Clovio, the sixteenth century’s supreme artist in manuscript design and illumination.5 In 1561, Clovio wrote to Teerlinc, thanking her for the gift of a self-portrait, which he kept until he died in 1578; Teerlinc did not sign her works, and the portrait is presumed lost.

Simon Bening - Self Portrait

Simon Bening, self-portrait.

Levina was perhaps brought to Henry’s court to replace the artists Lucas Hornebout and Hans Holbein the Younger (who had died in 1543); she was granted an annual stipend of £40 in 1546, more than Holbein had received (£30), and the most generous annuity for any painter at the royal court until the next century. Teerlinc was not the first female artist to work for Henry VIII. Susanna Hornebout (englished as ‘Hornebolt’) had been employed at court from the 1520s to the 1540s. Like Teerlinc, Hornebout came from the Ghent–Bruges tradition of illumination and miniature work, and both families had been involved in the production of the large and sumptuous Book of Hours (1503) made to celebrate the marriage of James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest sister.

Artists of the period were expected to be highly proficient in all kinds of craft and artisan activity – Leonardo da Vinci was typical and not exceptional in this respect. An artist’s skill-set might include calligraphy, book illustration, gold working, jewellery design and setting, interior and furniture decoration, design and limning of coins, medals and impresa (heraldic images), tapestry and stained-glass, and particularly as a female artisan, every kind of needlework and embroidery, which were also the routine pastimes for gentlewomen at court. Teerlinc may have designed the Great Seal of State for Mary, and the first Seal for Elizabeth (Nicholas Hilliard designed the second Seal matrix, around 1584).

Teerlinc maintained her position after the death of Henry, through the brief reign of Edward, and continued to paint portraits for Mary Tudor and her court. She was also retained by Elizabeth at her accession in 1558, who despite her carefulness, extended Teerlinc’s annuity to a lifelong privilege, and confirmed her husband’s court status; if Levina had lived to 1600, her salary would have been significantly eroded by the insidious price inflation that plagued the century. Teerlinc had been a gentlewoman of the privy chamber to Queen Mary, a position implying considerable trust and which granted real status; Elizabeth also renewed this post, which Terlinc held until her death in 1576. The Teerlincs must have gained respect during their time in successive English royal courts, and Elizabeth was perhaps rewarding the couple’s loyalty to her during the difficult, even dangerous years of the 1550s. The Teerlincs represented a tangible continuity back through the decades at court to the reign of Elizabeth’s father, contributing to some sense of stability in rapidly shifting times.6

1566 was a significant year for the paintrix and her family; George Teerlinc constructed a house valued at the considerable sum of £500 in Stepney, and the couple and their son Marcus were granted status as English citizens, for which they had applied. A portrait, probably by Levina, of an anonymous woman wearing a necklace of decorative dice is thought by some to be a self-portrait, ‘teerlinc’ being the Flemish for gaming pieces.

Levina Teerlinc - Self Portrait

Levina Teerlinc.

Among the earliest recorded paintings by Teerlinc for Elizabeth was a portrait of the queen, presented as a New Year’s gift in 1559. The Maundy Thursday image may have been the New Year’s gift recorded for 1562, and noted as being ‘With her said majestie’, suggesting that Elizabeth valued the miniature enough to keep it by her. Roy Strong characterised the level of facility shown in the group of miniatures and small paintings on vellum ascribed to Teerlinc as being weak in draughtsmanship, with thin, transparent paint and loose brushwork.7  Though none of her painting survives, Susanna Hornebolt seems to have been a much more accomplished artist than Teerlinc, Albrecht Durer buying one of her early works.

An ‘icon’ such as the Maundy Thursday miniature would be a carefully considered piece, in terms of both the propriety and the accuracy of its representation. Elizabeth and her ladies-in-waiting protect their precious court costume with white aprons. They also follow the text of the event that they are re-enacting in their faith, and which sutures the status of the monarch to ultimate authority:

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his upper garments, and took a towel, and girded himself.  After that, he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel, wherewith he was girded. (Geneva: John 13: 4–5. King James: ‘laid aside his garments’.)

Levina Teerlinc - Royal Maundy (detail)

Levina Teerlinc, ‘Royal Maundy’.

LINES OF POOR women, apparently at least three deep, queue around the walls of the room; the miniature has been cut down from a rectangular shape, and some detail has been lost. There is disagreement over the identification of the most prominent figures in this painting, and there is an obvious reason for possible confusion. The most striking figure is the central, foregrounded, fair-haired woman in the vivid red dress, face in three-quarter profile. Susan Frye identifies this individual as Elizabeth, looking on as the ceremony proceeds to her left. This is an understandable choice, but questionable, not least because of the figure to the left foreground in the blue dress. This is surely the monarch, whose train is being held, with several basins of warm water and sweet flowers at the ready, as she prepares to wash one foot of a poor woman. This was a stylized and symbolic act, in truth, because all feet had been already thoroughly washed in preparation by the Yeomen of the laundry, the queen’s Sub-Almoner and her Almoner (perhaps the figures kneeling, immediately behind Elizabeth). The figure in red is therefore an enigma; there is surely no precedent for depicting the monarch from behind, her face concealed?

Margaret Aston identifies the left-foreground figure as the monarch (though describes her as being dressed in ‘the customary black’), and Margaret McManus perceptively notes that the relegation of the queen to the edge of the image symbolically endorses the humility that she is assuming for the Maundy ceremony. McManus speculates that the mysterious lady in the red dress might actually be Levina Teerlinc herself, which is appealing, but seems somehow indecorous, and not appropriate. She has usurped the monarch’s rightful iconographic position, her choice of gown appears even now shocking, in terms of the grave modesty of the occasion and the dress of every other woman present. Jinny Webber suggests that this may be a second image of Elizabeth, as it were, a different aspect of the monarch, the courtly individual observing the performative role of her self as head of State; certainly, her auburn hair is a persuasive detail. Are there other alternatives?  8

If Elizabeth kept this miniature close by, was it some kind of private narrative, a topical facetia? If so, it should be possible to identify prominent members of the court in attendance, for example, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury – the black-capped individual with the cruciform staff, and Cecil, Lord Burleigh next to him, looking on a gentlewoman? Whoever the ecclesiast may be, he appears to gaze directly at the Woman in the Red Dress, there is a clear sight-line, and as do several of the figures around him. Teerlinc’s ‘Royal Maundy’ is not ‘Las Meniñas’, but the lady-in-waiting in the right-hand foreground, with several others, does seem to be looking straight out of the frame at the artist/observer.

A mystery: speculate wildly, which is what happens when you enter the force field of the Elizabethan court. Is this the spectral presence of Mary, Queen of the Scots, tall and auburn, who obsessed Elizabeth’s thoughts at the time? The courtier right foreground, with alluring golden tights – Dudley, Earl of Leicester, balancing the image of Elizabeth, Dudley who for two decades was the troubling, troublesome lodestone of Elizabeth’s desire? But in August 1565, Elizabeth had deeply disconcerted Dudley by demonstrating a clear attraction to Thomas Heneage, ‘a man for his elegancy of life and pleasantness of discourse born as it were for the court’.9 This was another move in Elizabeth’s consistent strategy to keep open her options for marriage and alliance, and to disconcert all contenders simultaneously. Heneage at this time was Treasurer of the Chamber, and performed a key role in the Maundy Thursday ceremony. Elizabeth did not follow the custom of giving away the gown she wore that day, but auctioned it to the highest bidder, for several red leather purses holding twenty shillings each, which were then also given away among the poor female citizenry. Is Heneage the conspicuous courtier in black, wearing a gold chain, behind Elizabeth’s train-bearer, waiting to organise the charity auction? Is this figure in some kind of contention with the golden-legged courtier at the right? If so, then the lady in the red dress might be Lettice Knollys, with whom Dudley began an affair in reaction to Elizabeth’s flirtations with Heaneage … Time to stop the court gossip, I think, but this conveys something of the shifting, sometimes dangerous context in which the ‘myld and quyet’ Thomas Tallis composed.

After completing her ritual of abjection that allied the monarch with the Saviour and her subjects, and having distributed the proceeds from the sale of the gown, together with the aprons and wooden platters, to the objects of her royal charity, Elizabeth ‘took her ease upon the cushion of state’, to listen to the singing of the royal choir. Tallis ought to be present beyond the ‘cushion of state’, among the gentlemen and choristers of the Chapel Royal, which he had served since possibly 1538, certainly by 1543. Perhaps the blue-caped man at the right of the group? The image of the choristers however may not be very accurate. At full force, there were thirty-two gentlemen and a minimum of twelve boys, who were selected from across the nation by the Master of the Chapel Royal, one of whose roles was to scour the country to ‘take up and bring such children as be thought meet to be trained for service to her Majesty’.10


Georg Hoefnagel, watercolour of the south frontage of Nonsuch, 1568

Georg Hoefnagel, south frontage of Nonsuch; 1568

If Spem in alium was first given to celebrate the fortieth birthday of Queen Mary I, it may have been performed in one of the two octagonal towers flanking the frontage of the Nonsuch (‘Unequalled’) Palace, Surrey, the most impressive Renaissance structure in the country at that time. A banqueting hall was situated at the base of one tower, with four first-floor balconies above; Tallis may have conceived the motet for performance here, with four of the choirs performing from these balconies, to an audience of between thirty and forty, seated below. The dimensions of this room are about the same as the width of the Cloisters Chapel NY, at approximately 25 feet, so this would have been a wonderfully resonant performance.

HOWEVER, TALLIS’ MOTET was originally thought to have been composed to celebrate the fortieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, 1573, rather than seventeen years earlier for the last Catholic monarch of the kingdom (and the later date is considered more plausible on stylistic grounds). A possible inspiration for the work may have been the example of a forty-part mass from Italy. Alessandro Striggio (senior) made an impromptu, two-week visit to London in June 1567, after a strenuous round of diplomatic negotiation for Duke Cosimo de’ Medici at the courts of Europe, which took him from Florence to Vienna, Munich and Paris. Striggio’s forty-part Missa sopra ecco sì beato giorno, no doubt a part of his diplomatic strategy, had been sung at mass for Duke Albrecht V in Munich, and as a post-prandial spiritual refresh for Charles IX, near Paris. Striggio seized the opportunity to make an embassage to the English court at the end of his travels, where he presented Queen Elizabeth with his six-part madrigal, D’ogni gratia et d’amor. The account of Striggio’s visit survives only from a later date, 27 November 1611, given by Thomas Wateridge, and set down by ‘Ellis Swayne in his chamber’ at the Inner Temple:

In Queen Elizabeth’s time y[th]ere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence ye Italians obteyned ye name to be called Apices [peaks] of ye world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of ___ bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he could undertake ye Matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house.11

Arundel House, a ‘mean and low’ building, engraved by Adam Bierling, 1646, after his master, Wenceslas (Václav) Hollar, the ‘ingenious delineator and engraver’, who lodged there from 1637, in the service of Thomas Howard, twenty-first Earl of Arundel, ardent connoisseur.

Arundel House, a ‘mean and low’ building. 12

Arundel House was then occupied by Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel, and his son-in-law, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (now a widower). FitzAlan, like Tallis, had served under four monarchs, his career culminating as privy councillor and lord steward of the realm, for Elizabeth. Also like Tallis, FitzAlan had maintained his Catholic faith, and was regarded, tacitly, as the leading figure among English Catholics. He was also devoted to music, maintaining the largest company of performers in the nation, after those at court. FitzAlan had bought Nonsuch Palace from Mary Tudor in 1556; in 1596, a catalogue was made of the palace’s large library, which included a copy of the score of Spem in alium.

The music-loving duke who may have provoked Tallis to compose his masterpiece, according to this account, was Thomas Howard, ominously, the last surviving duke of the period, Somerset, Northumberland and Suffolk all having been beheaded for treason between 1552 and 1554. Norfolk felt that the English motet

So farre surpassed ye other that the Duke hearing of yt songe, took his chayne of Gold from of[f] his necke and putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.

Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, as son of the brilliant Henry Howard, who was with Thomas Wyatt one of the most accomplished poets of the Henrican court, came from a supremely wealthy and cultivated family. During the period of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and abolition of the Catholic church, the Howard dynasty had represented the ‘last political bulwark of Catholicism’.13 But Thomas Howard’s tutor had been the arch reforming propagandist, John Foxe, author of the ‘Book of Martyrs’ (1563), and Howard professed himself Protestant, while maintaining many Catholic friends, such as FitzAlan. Despite this supremely privileged position and education, he is described as having a malleable and indecisive character, which in the end proved fatal. Norfolk held high and responsible office, made earl marshal in 1554, lieutenant-general in the North from 1559 to 1560, but he was arrested and held prisoner in the Tower from October 1569 to August 1570. He was detained again in 1571 until his execution in June the following year, for his (in truth, ineffectual) part in the complex plotting to free Mary Stuart and restore her to the Scots throne. If Thomas Howard heard the performance of Spem in alium in Arundel House at some point during this difficult time, he might have responded so impulsively to Tallis as composer because the motet touched the anxieties about his own status, which he must have known to be vulnerable in the extreme. Even more speculatively, was the forty-part motet, I have never put my hope in any other but you, a heart-felt plea from Howard and his circle to his monarch for mercy?14

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, age 25, by Hans Eworth, dated 1563. Eworth’s portraits are all thought to be of subjects loyal to Catholic belief. By 1568, Howard was ‘ill and depressed since the death of his third wife and her baby in childbirth the previous autumn’. Aston, The King’s Bedpost, 190.

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, Hans Eworth (1563). 15

Musicians, composers especially, can be thought of as mathematicians with added noise, and the musical architecture of Spem in alium may be as elaborate as that of the Nonsuch Palace itself. The motet is written for eight separate choirs, each voice bearing its own independent line, though the vocal range is relatively restricted, as with the composer’s other post-Reformation writing. Janet Cardiff’s installation beautifully demonstrated how the motet rotates through the eight sets of singers as each phrase is delivered. At the fortieth breve, qui irasceris et propitious eris, an astonishing unison of voices is achieved, and the structure then unwinds in reverse direction. The voice parts also switch around the four points of the compass, antiphonally, sometimes singing simultaneously from opposite directions; this seems to argue in favour of the idea that the piece might have been composed for a specific venue that could accommodate these effects.

At respice humilitatem nostram, the polyphony becomes even more complex, and belies the ‘worthlessness’ of which it sings. Because of the scale of the work, Spem in alium was not included in Cantiones Sacrae (1575), Tallis and Byrd’s part-book collection of thirty-four motets, one for each year of Elizabeth’s reign, each composer contributing seventeen pieces. This publication was intended to raise the status of English sacred music across Europe, and also to make the work of the two pre-eminent Chapel Royal composers available to affluent English households; even so, it was a commercial failure.16

WHY DID TALLIS choose such a punishing argument for his supreme choral work? The text underlay of the motet is a respond or responsory, a brief anthem sung in the course of a liturgical reading as a way of illustrating, or precisely, responding to, the matter of the lesson, taken from the (Catholic) Sarum Liturgy; longer form responsories were sung at the conclusion of the lesson. The Sarum Rite17  was a fantastically elaborated program for the entire liturgical year, specifying in enormous detail the texts, music, vestments, processional order and ritual behaviour for every service throughout the day and night. Refining and maintaining this complex liturgical structure must have preoccupied the equivalent of geeks and software monkeys in the late medieval and Tudor period. The Sarum Rite and its observance was, predictably, the object of continuous criticism from fundamentalist-minded reformers.

Spem in alium was in dialogue with the Historia Judith, read for Sunday Matins, a retelling of the Book of Judith, the fourth book of the Apocrypha, as included in the Geneva Bible (1560) and followed by the King James Version (1611). The sixteen chapters of the Book of Judith are well worth reading, and they demonstrate very clearly the strange agglomeration of varied kinds of writing that constitutes the far from monolithic Bible text. Ioudith (‘Jewess’) is novelistic, a tightly developed narrative, full of (pseudo) historical context and seductive detail. The figure of Judith is a complex character, one of the most individualised representations of a woman in the entire Bible; she has, for example, the most elaborate genealogy of any Old Testament heroine (8:1), as if to legitimise her role as ‘Israel’ incarnate. It is easy to understand why textual scholars consider The Book of Judith to be a late composition from the Hellenistic period, around 180 to 130 BCE, probably written in Palestine or Alexandria, possibly in Greek rather than Hebrew, and a product of the transition from scroll to codex format, which enabled a new kind of reading consciousness – enhanced document-search facilities, cut and paste, heightened intertextual functions. The anonymous, almost certainly male, author of The Book of Judith therefore very consciously wrote in complex typological relation to the entire body of canonical text that preceded him.18

Nabuchodonosor of Nineve, king of the Assyrians, called for the peoples about him to make war against Arphaxad, who had built a great stronghold at Ecbatane. Yet all the nations refused, and mocked him. He vanquished Arphaxad, and turned his wrath against those who had demurred. He ordered his chief captain, Holofernes (‘Olofernes’ in the 1611 text), to take 120,000 men and 12,000 cavalry to revenge him:

Then he went down into the plain of Damascus in the time of wheat harvest, and burnt up all their fields, and destroyed their flocks and herds, also he spoiled their cities, and utterly wasted their countries, and smote all their young men with the edge of the sword. (Judith: 2:27)

The children of Israel, only just escaped from Egyptian bondage, ‘possessed themselves beforehand of all the tops of the high mountains’ (4:5), and charged the inhabitants of the city of Bethulia (‘chastity’) to ‘keep [protect] the passages of the hill country’, which were ‘strait’ [narrow], and easily defended. Achior, an Ammonite, spoke powerfully of the ‘exceptionalism’ of the Israelites and their covenant with a God, which enraged Holofernes still further, and he vowed to destroy them. He is advised to stop up the streams that sustain Bethulia, rather than lay siege to the heights, and their cisterns become empty.

Judith, widow of Manasses, wealthy, in pious mourning for her husband, of wise counsel and ‘very beautiful to behold’ (8:7), undertakes to go out with her waiting woman and deliver the city by her own wiles. She put on ‘her garments of gladness’ and ‘decked herself bravely’ (10:3, 4), and went out to enter the Assyrian camp and meet with Holofernes in his tent, ‘rested upon his bed under a canopy, which was woven with purple, and gold, and emeralds, and precious stones’ (10:21). She undertakes to tell him when the Israelites have weakened, and to guide his forces covertly through Judea so that he may ‘drive them as sheep that have no shepherd’ (10:19). For three nights Judith sleeps chastely in her own tent, next to that of Holofernes, and is permitted to go out in the evenings and observe ritual ablution. On the fourth night, Holofernes determines to possess Judith, and invites her to feast; for the first time, she agrees to eat with him, ensuring that he becomes insensible with drink before he can seduce her.

Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes’ head, and took down his fauchion from thence … And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him … And she put it in her bag of meat. (13:8, 10)

Maarten van Heemskerck - Judith and Holofernes

Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574). Judith & Holofernes 1560. 19

Judith and her waiting woman then left the camp, as if for their customary evening prayers, and climbed the mountain back to Bethulia, where Judith revealed the head of Holofernes, whom she had slain without her own defilement. And the army of Assur fled when they discovered what Judith had done. ‘And many desired her, but none knew her all the days of her life’ (16:22). Ioudith became a synonym for Israel itself, prefigured for instance by David’s triumph over Goliath, but was then also developed extensively within the Christian tradition as a prefiguring of the Virgin Mary. Judith therefore became a useful symbol in making the transition from the old revelation to the new, representing variously Virtue, Chastity, the Church, Fortitude and Justice.

The story of Judith was, predictably, one of the most popular subjects for painters and print-makers throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; for the Counter-Reformation, Judith was read as the righteous universal church triumphing over heresy. The Book of Judith therefore played a significant role in mid-sixteenth century political and spiritual iconography, and was used as such by both Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. Mary, for example, was associated with the figure of Judith by her court propagandists at the time of her contested coronation, in September 1553. Mary’s claim should have been beyond dispute, as her father, Henry VIII, had named her his successor, after Edward. But John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, interposed his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Gray, as monarch, who reigned for just nine days, before Mary’s forces deposed her and swiftly beheaded Northumberland. In what must have seemed at the time like divine concurrence, the Sarum Rite’s reading and responsories to the Historia Judith neatly coincided with the coronation of Mary, 30 September 1553. Or the date might just have been allocated to make precisely this point.20

The Joyfull receyuingElizabeth also invoked the example of Judith, which was perhaps even more apposite to the kind of image that she, as the virginal Queen, wished to promote. In a prayerful invocation, she wrote, ‘I, like another Deborah, like another Judith, like another Esther, may free Thy people of Israel from the hands of Thy enemies.’21 Figurative Judiths lay in wait to impede the way of her royal progresses through the towns and cities of her realm. On a visit to Norwich in 1578, a Judith addressed her as a ‘Prince of surpassing might’ who could resist tyrants greater than Holofernes. Elizabeth is said to have shown endless patience during these laborious demonstrations of national loyalty, knowing very well how much depended on the provincial perception of her status. She may have listened to Judith of Norwich with some relief, as she had just been spared a much longer oration, ‘To be uttered by Gurgunt to the Queen. However, it was not performed because it was raining.’ 22



Giuditta e Oloferne / Head of a Tyrant (Italy 1959)

WE ARE BLISSED-OUT, tuned-in, zoned-out, transfixed, eyes closed, silent, rising slightly off the floor, body hairs erectile, cold shivers, rendered speechless. Riding the alpha waves, nothing spasmic. ‘Wow’ is as much as I could breathe out. ‘Stunned’ would be the appropriate word. Of course, as always, there were the oblivious ones, children of the Phone Age, wandering through, checking their screens, but not many. What were we ardent listeners taking from this experience? What did this mean, as a quarter of an hour’s Sunday recreational visit in Upper Manhattan? (We were all purified, having fasted – there was no available café facility in that part of Upper Manhattan, at all. Really. Come on, NY.)

Many people have returned to the installation a number of times; some say it is deeply unsettling, as if you were walking among ghosts, the performance so poignant because it demonstrates the frailty of everything that we do, even as it is a kind of perfection. For another, it was like being one of the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), because you were so close to the performers that you could hear their slightest breath from the speaker, imagine you were overhearing their thoughts.23

Uncaptioned PicturePerhaps some of the attentive listeners were privately dwelling on fond memories of the fetching, but troubled Tom Tallis in the The Tudors (BBC 2012), as played by Joe van Moyland (aka ‘tousled’ Joe Lean). Beyond that media-prompted response, how much did any of the rapt audience know of the debates over the origin of Spem in alium, or its place in the development of European polyphony, of the vexed complexities of liturgical revision, or the turbulent politics of the royal court? Some of the audience were certainly choristers themselves, may even have performed the motet, in which case they would be well versed in its structure, perhaps also some of the history. I knew very little indeed, even though I have loved and taught the literary renaissance for decades, have heard Tallis’s motet many times, in live and, more often, recorded performances, generally appreciating the music as a sustaining forest of song, sometimes transfixing, sometimes no more than a matte of voices that pleasingly resolves. And I’m no wiser now as to the precise date, circumstances and allegiance of Spem in alium, and its enigmatic origins.

An early-modernist intensity responding to Spem in alium, like that of Thomas Howard or the personnel of the Elizabethan court, was an utterly different kind of experience from the one we shared in the Cloisters.

Whatever these were, I want to argue that an early-modernist intensity responding to Spem in alium, like that of Thomas Howard or the personnel of the Elizabethan court, was an utterly different kind of experience from the one we shared in the Cloisters. Almost certainly, because above all it would have been conditioned by spiritual anxiety, which is precisely the central burden of the Latin text, respice humilitatem nostrum. These are apparently simple words, but they can be nuanced in many different ways; I hear, ‘be mindful of our worthlessness’, which is a debatable but not improbable emphasis, ‘worthlessness’ is more punishing that simple ‘humility’, but is within the semantic range for ‘humilis’, and derives from the stark apposition to Domine Deus, Creator coeli et terrae. In addition to the penitential force of the piece, for a mid-sixteenth century congregation, there would also be an additional insecurity for high-status individuals such as Howard, because of the dangerous, even fatal, political implications that might attend a work like this and its performance.

Sparse chordal textures collapse the speech/song divide. Motivic strands glissade. Ambient hypnoidal trance, aural homeostasis, statics. It’s a psycho-acoustical thing. We resonate to the formant frequencies of a timbral space. The harmonic rhythmus that began with Kind of Blue (1959), the opened tonalities of ‘music as a gradual process’, the halted textures of ceol mór, the truly big music. The epic microdrones of La Monte Young’s The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (1963). The gradual process, the gradualia, of polyphony, as theorists of sound wove it for a millennium and more. Metastasis. Our sublimed flow of media, mediation. Release the microharmonics of unequal temperament, all the modalities, the music of caressed cloud-chamber bowls and re-born kithara.

Works on music theory collected and copied by John Wylde, choirmaster at the Augustinian Abbey of Holy Cross, Waltham, Essex, in the early to mid fifteenth century, and left to the Abbey. ‘Tallys’ served as a senior member of the choir from autumn 1538, until the dissolution of Holy Cross in 1540. One of the works in the MS collection, by Leonel Power, forbids consecutive unisons, fifths and octaves in composition, advice that Tallis followed. What is probably his signature is written above what may be a later, capitalized form of his name.

Works on music theory collected and copied by John Wylde, choirmaster at the Augustinian Abbey of Holy Cross, Waltham, Essex, in the early to mid fifteenth century, and left to the Abbey. 24

IS THIS THE dialectical entrainment of motoric ostinato as per Teddy Adorno’s catatonic narcolepsy wrought by the political economics of cultural consumption, most especially the suave cantillation and spectral overtones of Tudor polyphonia? Are we in the ‘sonic analogue’, the ‘sonorous constituent of a characteristic repetitive experience of self in mass-media consumer society’, condemned to our culture of eternal material repetition, merciless as the Inferno itself? 25

While Donna Summer entranced the sublime disco with I Feel Love, July 1977, Arvo Pärt addressed the spirit of Benjamin Britten with his phase-shifted Cantus, and then let loose a bit with Tabula Rasa, including molested piano. Had he been spotted at the back of Tallinn dance venues, avoiding glitter-ball surveillance, this may be just rumour.

The ‘structure of feeling’ that was Thomas Howard’s early-modern spiritual anxiety has not been left behind. Is it not that this perpetual insecurity, the absolutely vacuous category of the spiritual-as-such, shapeshifts across the centuries, ever-present for whatever contemporary agenda cannot be otherwise accommodated? It is the infinite range of cultural formations and social grounds that are created by this central compulsion, by which it is reciprocally informed, that is so endlessly subtle and absorbing. It is precisely the post hoc, ergo propter hoc of modernism’s post.

3RAPTURES150Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). He lives and works in Orkney.

This is the first of three “Raptures” created by Nigel Wheale for The Fortnightly Review.


  1. See the exhibition notes by Alexander Blachly.
  2. Philip Legge (ed.), Spem in alium nunquam habui, for the Choral Public Domain Library, (2004–2008).
  3. Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580 – 1680 (Unwin Hyman, 1982), p. 68.
  4. Possibly the first of only two recorded uses of the word (OED).
  5. Vasari’s notes on Clovio are here. See also The Crucifixion; Moses and the Brazen Serpent
  6. Susan Frye, 2 ‘Levina Teerlinc, Miniaturist and Member of Royal Households’, in Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England, (Pennsylvania UP, 2011), p. 81.
  7. Roy Strong, Artists of the Tudor Court: The Portrait Miniature Rediscovered, 1520–1620, (V&A, 1983).
  8. Margaret Aston, ‘Maarten van Heemskerck’, The King’s Bedpost. Reformation and Iconography in a Tudor Group Portrait (Cambridge, 1993), p. 66, and Plate VI for a color image of the miniature. Frye, Pens and Needles, p. 85. Caroline McManus, ‘Queen Elizabeth, Dol Common, and the Performance of the Royal Maundy’, in Kirby Farrell, Kathleen M. Swaim (eds), The Mysteries of Elizabeth I: Selections from English Literary Renaissance (2003), p. 43ff. See also Jinny Webber’s webpage at Nebbadoon Press. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  9. Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I, (Fontana, 1992), p. 180.
  10. Somerset, p. 370.
  11. Philip Legge, for the Choral Public Domain Library (2004–08). Did Wateridge/Swayne cut down the number of voices in Striggio’s Mass to thirty so as to emphasise Tallis’s achievement? The letter was discovered by Elizabeth Roche in 1981: Willem Elders, ‘Symbolic Scoring in Tudor England’, Symbolic Scores: Studies in the Music of the Renaissance, p. 110.
  12. Engraved by Adam Bierling in 1646 after his master, Wenceslas (Václav) Hollar, the ‘ingenious delineator and engraver’, who lodged there from 1637, in the service of Thomas Howard, twenty-first Earl of Arundel, ardent connoisseur.
  13. A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation, (Collins, 1964), 271.
  14. Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1969) 21 ‘My Norfolk’. Aston, ‘Junius, Foxe, and the Howards’, The King’s Bedpost, p. 190.
  15. Eworth’s portraits are all thought to be of subjects loyal to Catholic belief. By 1568, Howard was ‘ill and depressed since the death of his third wife and her baby in childbirth the previous autumn’. Aston, The King’s Bedpost, 190.
  16. Tallis, Complete Works by Alistair Dixon and the Chapelle du Roi, 10 CDs, (Signum Records, 2011). With grateful thanks to EE.
  17. The Sarum liurgy is here (see Maskell); the English translation is here.
  18. Kevine R. Brine, Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann (eds) The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies across the Disciplines (Open Book Publishers, 2010). The full text of The Book of Judith is here.
  19. Heemskerck was a highly educated, prolific artist, whose work exercised great influence through the numerous etchings and engravings, made by others, of his paintings and drawings. Rembrandt was one among many artists influenced by Heemskerck. Aston, ‘Maarten van Heemskerck’ and ‘Edward VI and Heemskerck’, in The King’s Bedpost, pp. 54–81.
  20. Daniel Page, ‘Uniform and Catholic: Church Music in the Reign of Mary Tudor, 1553–1558’ (MPhil. Diss., Brandeis, 1996).
  21. A Spanish prayer by Elizabeth, in, Annaliese Connolly and Lisa Hopkins (eds) Goddesses and Queens: The Iconography of Elizabeth I (Manchester UP, 2007), p. 23
  22. Entry into Norwich of Elizabeth I (British Library).
  23. “Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet”, Studio 360. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  24. ‘Tallys’ served as a senior member of the choir from autumn 1538, until the dissolution of Holy Cross in 1540. One of the works in the MS collection, by Leonel Power, forbids consecutive unisons, fifths and octaves in composition, advice that Tallis followed. What is probably his signature is written above what may be a later, capitalized form of his name. Image: British Library.
  25. music as a gradual process’: Steve Reich, in Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise. Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar Strauss, 2007; Fourth Estate, 2008), p. 478). ‘cloud-chamber bowls’, Harry Partsch, in Ross, p. 481. Timbral analysis. Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (California UP, 2005). These two paragraphs are a mash-up from the above, with grateful acknowledgement.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    This is a extraordinary essay. I sought to know why Thomas Tallis chose to compose the third psalm tune from Nine Tunes… which led me to Vaughn Williams and then back to Tallis and somehow to this article, rightly called a rapture. What a way to spend thirty minutes of a morning.

    Saturday, 3 December 2022 at 15:12 | Permalink

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