Yesterday afternoon I was at the British Museum, wandering through the Enlightenment Gallery. I had been there a while and was drifting out of the room when I heard human voices, singing. At first I thought the Museum was piping in a soundtrack, but then I realized that that couldn’t be. I paused and noted that the music was coming from somewhere behind me. I turned and walked back toward the center of the room. It was five in the afternoon.
There a crowd of people had gathered around the great Piranesi vase and were singing one of the greatest jewels of the choral music repertoire, Thomas Tallis’s forty-part motet Spem in Alium. I am not especially knowledgable about choral music, but this piece I recognized immediately — as anyone would who had heard it before, because it doesn’t really sound like anything else. But I had only heard recorded versions, and frankly, that did little to prepare me for the sheer glory to be had when you’re standing ten feet from the singers in a resonant and beautiful room.
The motet’s forty parts are produced by eight choirs of five voices each, passing melodies and counter-melodies back and forth. The forty singers stood about in their street clothes, some with backpacks or purses at their feet. They held a variety of scores: some had only photocopied pages, others large, elaborate, and probably quite valuable folios. Some of their faces revealed intense concentration, some manifested sheer joy. Next to the Piranesi vase the conductor stood, bent at the waist to see the music laid on the floor at her feet, and swung her left arm in big arcs as though she were holding a bell. A toddler wandered back and forth in the midst of them all, looking up in pleasure and puzzlement at the singers’ faces.
At the moments when Tallis masses all forty voices the effect, for the nearby listener, is essentially indescribable. I felt that I was being showered by light — some golden, overpowering light. (You want to compare the sound to an organ with all the stops pulled out, but the organ was developed to imitate this sound, the vox humana at its fullest and richest and sweetest.) The sopranos arced high over the foundation laid by the basses; each voice threw out another layer of beauty.
Spem in Alium might be said to cry out for a cathedral setting, but this music is a cathedral, if a portable and ephemeral one. And there’s something richly ironic about this music being performed in the Enlightenment gallery of the museum — as though Tallis were looking forward to the self-congratulatory eighteenth century (and to our even more complacent age) and asking, “What light do you have to match this?”
In ten minutes it was over. I stood there for a few minutes more, waiting for the shivers to subside. The singers laughed and embraced one another and talked excitedly; they gradually dispersed. The toddler found his mother, who turned out to be the conductor.
A few minutes later I saw her near the main entrance and approached to thank her. “Oh, that’s kind of you,” she said.
“Who are you people?” I asked.
She smiled — she was constantly smiling, in fact. “Oh, just odds and sods. Some of us knew each other at Oxford and Cambridge. Some are from the Westminster College of Music.”
“So this is guerrilla music.”
“Yeah,” she replied, with a diffident lilt and a bit of a shrug. “Our first guerrilla outing.” She paused a moment and then said, “It’s a lovely piece.”
Yes, I think you can say that. And what a gift Tallis and those singers gave me, and a handful of others, on a Sunday afternoon in the crowd and bustle of the British Museum.