Omnes angeli : SATBarB choir
by Vaughan McAlley (2012)
Performance by Ensemble Gombert, John O'Donnell from the CD Selected Works by AMC Represented Artists, vol. 46.
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Library shelf no. CD 2547 [Available for loan]
In 2009 I had the idea of singing Tallis' forty-part Spem in alium for my 40th birthday. When I told friends about my crazy birthday plans, some of them suggested I write a forty-part piece of my own. It seemed a big challenge: no one (to my knowledge) has written a fully polyphonic forty-part piece since Tallis, partly because changes in musical techniques since Tallis' time have hindered the writing of music in many parts. By 2010 I had ten years of experience writing music in the renaissance prima pratica style, and when composing Omnes angeli was armed with the knowledge that Tallis had shown it was possible. We sang the first section of Omnes angeli at my birthday party in July 2010, and it took me another two years to complete the motet.
From a technical point of view, writing music in forty parts is like writing a novel with forty main characters - one needs a very good way of keeping track of everything. It is also an enormous canvas, requiring a suitably grand subject. I was partly inspired by the near-death experience described by a non-musical Baptist pastor. In his experience of Heaven he described numerous angels all singing different lines but harmonising together, a beautiful scene for theists and humanists alike. As a text I chose the scene of angels, elders and animals worshipping the Lamb from the Book of Revelation. A forty-part choir allows gigantic and spectacular tuttis, but also many different combinations of smaller groups. Omnes angeli is written for ten four-part choirs, all with different voicings (except for choirs 4 and 5), and which are arranged in a semicircle. The higher voices of sopranos and altos are on the outside edges, whereas the middle choirs are a rich ensemble of tenors, baritones and basses. From each end of the semicircle, the two highest sopranos call and answer "one to another" like the Seraphim from the book of Isaiah (6:2-3).
In the middle section, every part sings the breathless phrase "Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever". This phrase is begun by the men of Choir 6, gradually works its way around the the high voices of Choir 10, jumps to Choir 1, and progresses around the semicircle until it reaches Choir 5. Choir 5 finishes the acclamation, but is mostly drowned out by a huge tutti Amen that is the climax of the whole work. As Tallis learned, having each of forty parts enter one after another will occupy a significant proportion of one's piece!
Instrumentation: 2 high sopranos, 4 sopranos, 4 mezzo-sopranos, 6 altos, 8 tenors, 8 baritones, 8 basses.
Duration: 8 min.
Difficulty: Advanced — Requires forty singers who can sing independently; rhythmically challenging
The composer notes the following influences, genres, subjects etc associated with this work: just intonation, Thomas Tallis, renaissance
Performances of this work
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