I had it in mind to write a piece about Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, but I’m struggling to say precisely – and concisely – what I want to say.
Firstly, it grieves and offends me that this, the greatest piece of music ever written, should have been used in a soft porn movie. I haven’t anything against Fifty Shades of Grey; I didn’t see the film because there is no cinema within forty miles of where I live so it wasn’t worth the cost of the petrol, plus the price of the ticket. And if somebody had given me the book as a present I’m sure I would have read it, if only to find out what all the fuss was about. It’s just – not this piece of music. Anything but Spem in Alium.
The Latin words – not that they matter, in a way – are:
Spem in alium nunquam habui / Praeter in te, Deus Israel / Qui irasceris et propitius eris / et omnia peccata hominum / in tribulatione dimittis / Domine Deus / Creator caeli et terrae / respice humilitatem nostrum
I have never put my hope in any other / but in You, O 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
I believe the author Terry Pratchett wanted to die listening to Spem in Alium. I don’t know whether he got his wish in the end, but I will tell you a little story.
About twelve years ago a man, distracted by his children in the back seat, crashed his car into mine as he came down a steep hill. I have no memory of the crash itself or the previous half an hour. The police showed me some pictures they had taken of my car. It was upside down in the wood, some way off the road, so it must have rolled. The doors were still shut and the car was so badly crushed that I wondered how I got out. Judging by where I was hurt I would guess that I was hanging upside down and either released the seatbelt or it released me, fell on the back of my neck, bending it right forward, and crawled out through the broken window. The ambulance men found me outside.
I had a gashed right elbow, another ‘broken’ place on my forehead which has left a scar, a twisted ankle and what certainly felt like one or more broken ribs. A large circular area on the back of my head stayed numb for several years afterwards. But the worst injury was the one to my neck. People tend to laugh at whiplash, regarding it as a minor injury; maybe it is for some but it wasn’t for me.
I am short-sighted but my glasses had been broken in the crash and left in the car. In the hospital they moved me from ward to ward; everyone around me was a blur. They wouldn’t let me wash. When I discharged myself from hospital the following day my hair was full of blood and glass, my hands were sticky with it and my clothes, when they returned them to me for the homeward journey, were torn and bloody too. The next day I hobbled over the road to my GP’s surgery. ‘As bad as it is now’, she told me, ‘I should tell you it’s likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.’
And then I lost count of time. Weeks, maybe months, I don’t know – of being off work; of my parents coming to visit bringing food and flasks of tea, driving me to the optician to order new glasses and to appointment after appointment with the physiotherapist; of not being able to do any housework; of struggling to keep feeding the cats amid growing household chaos; of living from one lot of extra-strong painkillers to the next; of hardly sleeping. The pain wouldn’t let me keep still. After a couple of hours lying down I would have to get up, go downstairs, sit in an armchair for a while, my head propped at the only bearable angle against a cushion, then back upstairs…
Well, what kept me going through that time was Spem in Alium. I had the CD player by the side of my bed and when things got too much I would press the button and listen to Spem in Alium – that one long track.
I have no idea how many times I have listened to Spem in Alium by now, but it can still make me cry. The best phrase I ever managed to come up with to describe it was Underwater Fireworks, but that’s not good enough. As the days of pain glued themselves together and stretched into weeks; when the novelty of being a car crash victim had long since worn off and when all I really wanted was to be dead and gone, if not exactly to die, I would remind myself that it had been worth coming to this planet if only to have had the privilege of sharing it, after some strange asynchronous fashion, with Thomas Tallis.
Sometimes I look at the human race, myself included, and wonder what on earth we think we are doing here. Just look at us all, strutting about as if we owned the place; vicious, naked apes; grubby, disgusting creatures got up in suits and dresses who take pleasure in tormenting each other and our fellow creatures.
But then I play Spem in Alium, and I know that we have souls.