Spem in Alium

On Sunday a ten-year-old plan of mine came to fruition, thanks to Helen, Phoebe and 37 (or so) others.  This was to sing Tallis’ wonderful Spem in Alium in the British Museum.  We didn’t ask permission, ‘cos we thought we wouldn’t get it, so we just turned up and sang. The BM visitors loved it; so did we – Phoebe declared, slightly emotionally, ‘that was the best thing ever’.  It’s had moderate internet success – quite a few hits on YouTube and several enthusiastic blogs.

The acoustic in the old King’s Library is wonderful.  Singing in there made me think (again) that music is the least well-represented aspect of our cultural heritage, and is often disjointed from other aspects.  Museums and galleries have concert series, but they have little to do with what’s in the museums and galleries.  Music is the best team sport ever, but we’ve all got to worship football instead.  Music is omnipresent, but it’s neither really music nor is it listened to – merely heard.  Perhaps it’s because music is the most fundamental art to us; people are slighty scared of music that makes you think and feel.

Addendum:  Further to this, we had a mention on R3, but it was suggested that we were perhaps guilty of ‘sonic mugging’.  This is my reply:

Dear Suzy,

What a nice mention of our Spem outing. I’d just like to pick up on your question about ‘sonic mugging’.  Of course a flashmob – or perhaps ‘pop-up’ would be more accurate, since we did rehearse! – means that the audience don’t choose what they hear or, indeed, whether to hear at all.  That’s one of the flashmob’s raisons d’être.  It’s a delightful surprise, more like a person giving you a random gift than jumping on you and beating you up.  And it’s not just a question of musical taste.  Of course Spem in Alium is infinitely greater than anything Tiny Tempah could dream up, but that’s beside the point.  TT, or any other amplified music, would not have been appropriate in the BM, which is a museum about the past, and has a bit of a sacred feel to it.  Amplified pop music was entirely appropriate in Liverpool St Station for the lovely T Mobile advert.  Spem is suitable not only because it’s a part of our cultural heritage, but it’s also a part of the BM, which holds one of the earliest MSS of the piece (the Gyffard partbooks).  So, in a way, we were a BM exhibit for 10 minutes.

I do agree with you that this is a good way of, if not exactly proselytising, opening people’s ears to ‘classical’ music, which a lot of people have massive prejudices about, shutting themselves off from great emotional experiences.  (Sorry to preach to the converted.)  The way that various members of the ‘audience’ wandered right up to the choir during Spem shows that an informal context like this is appreciated.  I can’t describe the experience of having Spem sprung on me, but here’s someone (completely unknown to me) who did.





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