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David Lang

Publisher: G. Schirmer

i never (2010)
Work Notes
Sale from Rental Library
Text Writer
the composer
Red Poppy
Chorus a cappella / Chorus plus 1 instrument
Year Composed
9 Minutes
40 voices a cappella
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Programme Note
David Lang i never (2010)
November 27 2010
Northern Sinfonia Chorus
Simon Halsey: conductor
Sage Gateshead, UK

Text by David Lang

A companion piece to the 40-part motet Spem in Alium of Thomas Tallis.

Composer Note

My piece I never was commissioned by the Sage Gateshead for the Northern Sinfonia Chorus and premiered in November 2010. It was commissioned specifically to be a companion to the famous 40-voice motet Spem in Alium by the Elizabethan master Thomas Tallis – once you go to the trouble of finding and rehearsing all those voices for the Tallis it makes sense to try to find something else for the concert for them to do, and on that concert the "something else" was me.

When a composer gets a commission like this he or she is not necessarily required to deal with the old piece at all. I could have written anything I wanted, so long as it had parts for all those singers. In this case, though, the Tallis is so interesting that I decided to make a new piece that dealt somehow with the memory of it.

Spem in Alium is for many people the only piece they know by Tallis, it is a famous piece. And of course it is interestingly famous - I would wager that more music lovers know that it is written for forty individual voices than could hum a single tune from it. When you think of it, this is an amazing thing – that the technical virtuosity of the construction of a piece is so much the foreground of the experience that the notes and harmonies themselves become secondary.

This heightened awareness of the formal construction of the piece came clear to me years ago when I saw the realization of Spem in Alium by Canadian visual artist Janet Cardiff - The Forty Voice Motet - in which she recorded each voice separately and played them back through forty individual speakers surrounding an empty gallery. As you walk among the speakers the balance changes between the voices and you become able to concentrate on just how Tallis made each singer’s part unique. This is an experience you can almost never get with the original, since the voices blend so well, especially when the piece is sung in the resonance of a real church, which is, of course, the way that Tallis would have heard it. In a modern concert hall the independence is a little easier to highlight, and since my piece is intended for a modern hall I thought it might be fun to push the independence thing as far as I could, sending the solo lines spinning at different rates around the ensemble.

Then there is the text.

The original is in Latin, and a pretty straightforward translation into English is:

I have never put my hope in any other but in you,
God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness

This text gave me a little bit of pause, since I am not a Christian and this whole "absolution of sin" stuff is confusing to me. I have to say that I am also sometimes suspicious of sentiments that deal with our relationship to God without extending those same sentiments to everyone else. Imagine how much more useful Tallis’ beautiful text could be if it underlined that one’s humility before God should lead us to be humble before everyone else as well. Being an individual in a larger, interdependent community is the central structural message of Tallis’ forty voices. Why shouldn’t the text suggest that as well?

So I rewrote the text, so that the humility could be aimed at anyone, God or not:

I never gave my hope
to anyone but you
I never gave my heart
to anyone but you
I never gave my love
to anyone but you
I never gave my self
to anyone but you

heaven and earth

remember - how low I am

— David Lang

Sample Pages

This item is available via Print on Demand from the G. Schirmer Library.

Octavo: $6 *minimum purchase 10 copies*

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