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Professor discusses debate over Tudor-era music

| Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Professor of musicology Alexander Blachly gave a lecture Monday in O’Neill Hall where he presented evidence in an attempt to answer some questions surrounding a forty-voice motet, or short piece of sacred choral music, called “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis.

Though the piece is well-know — it recently appeared in the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” — the motet’s actual release date, as well as the identity of the person for whom it was written, has long been a point of debate for scholars. In his lecture Blachly said the piece was composed for Mary Tudor, the queen of England, in 1556. This conclusion goes against the consensus of other scholars, such as historical musicologist Richard Taruskin, who generally date the piece to 1573, during the reign of English queen Elizabeth I.

Ann Curtis | The Observer

Alexander Blachly, a professor of musicology at Notre Dame, delivers a lecture Monday at O’Neill Hall. Blachly discussed several controversies involving the 16th Century musical piece “Spem in Alium.”

Blachly’s argument hinges on several points, mainly the significance of the text Tallis used in the composition and the overall sound of the piece.  

“Any attempt to answer questions about ‘Spem in Alium’s’ origin must take into account the symbolic nature of Tallis’s text, it must also account for the triumphant character of the music itself,” Blachly said.

The actual text of “Spem in Alium” is derived from the apocryphal “Book of Judith,” which told the story of a Hebrew widow from Bethulia who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes and saved her besieged town. This is important to understanding the origin of Tallis’ motet because the story of Judith was popular during the period in question and because of its relation to Mary Tudor. Due to the circumstances surrounding her accession to the throne — she executed the John Dudley for conspiring to put her predecessor Jane Grey on the throne. Because of this, Mary Tudor was hailed by her supporters as a “new Judith”, Blachly said, due to the thematic similarities between the two events.

Mary Tudor’s reputation as the “new Judith” was well known by herself and among her people, Blachly explained.

“Mary saw to it that notion of herself as a new Judith was propagated and widely disseminated” he said.

This piece of information seems to support the argument that the“Spem in Alium” was written for Mary Tudor in 1556 rather than for Elizabeth I, Blachly said. As the use of a text that tells the story of Judith would help reinforce and support the idea of Mary Tudor as the “new Judith”.

Another central point in Blachly’s argument was that Mary Tudor, unlike her Anglican sister and successor Elizabeth I, was Roman Catholic and a major proponent of the English counter-reformation. She fought against the Protestant Reformation and supported the Catholic values and traditions that existed before her father, Henry VIII, broke off from the Catholic Church. This detail is important because of the differences at the time between Anglican and Catholic sacred music.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury imposed a radical new vision of sacred,” Blachly said. “He declared that music for the Anglican Church would henceforth be of the utmost simplicity, one note per syllable.” 

“Spem In Alium”, Blachly said, with its powerful forty-voice composition and complex, the piece’s jubilant sound seems far more Catholic in its tradition than Anglican.

“Tallis’s ‘Spem In Alium’ reflects the old religion of Henry VII, that his granddaughter Mary Tudor strove to restore,” Blachly said.

Blachly said this point seems to support the argument that the“Spem In Alium” was originally composed with the Catholic Mary Tudor in mind, rather than the Anglican Elizabeth I.

However, Blachly said it appears Mary Tudor never heard “Spem In Alium” before her death in 1558, even though she was the intended recipient. Citing surviving written accounts of the personal lives of English benefactors who funded the piece, Blachly said these accounts seem to point to August of 1559 being the month and year the piece was first played for the newly crowned Elizabeth I, which is still years early than what previous scholars have surmised.

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