The centrepiece of this musical exploration of religious mysticism is the spectacular 40-part motet Spem in alium by the 16th century English composer, Thomas Tallis (c.1505 – 1585), considered to be one of the greatest of all Renaissance choral works. In his masterpiece, Tallis makes wonderful use of the space created between the eight, five-part choirs, often interweaving the 40 different parts to create a glorious tapestry of sound that gives the listener an insight into the devotional zeal which inspired the work.
In the generation before Tallis, the Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (c. 1450/55 – 1521), was considered the greatest composer of his time. His remarkable 24-part composition Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi entrances the ear with its intricate vocal patterns that seem to pivot around a single chord.
Many commentators hear a mystical intensity in the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, (1548 – 1611), the most famous composer of the Spanish “Golden Age”. Perhaps this is no surprise seeing that he was an ordained priest as well as a composer, and his religious conviction shines throughout all his work. This is evident in his Missa Laetatus sum for 12-part choir, renowned for its passionate fervour and published in 1600 when Victoria was at the height of his powers.
Religious experience continues to inspire composers today, and the programme includes Woefully Arrayed, a piece by the choir’s musical director, John Gibbons, in which he sets a powerful meditation of Christ on the Cross attributed to the Tudor poet John Skelton, and Jonathan Dove’s settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, The Far Theatricals of Day.