ONE the most magnificent pieces of choral music ever written will receive a rare live performance in Durham Cathedral.

The Durham Singers will perform Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium in a concert under the direction of Professor Julian Wright and Francesca Massey on April 6.

The work is written for forty different voices, divided into eight choirs of five singers, and each voice part having its own distinct character.

Beginning with a solo voice, the singers gradually join in, and the texture ebbs and flows, until eventually all forty parts come together to create an overall effect of astonishing complexity, with ever-shifting kaleidoscopic colour.

No-one is quite sure why or when it was written: it may have been composed for Queen Elizabeth I’s fortieth birthday, or it may have been that Tallis was challenged to do better than Italian composers who were writing similar pieces for large forces.

If this was the case, he certainly succeeded. The logistical complexities of putting on a performance of Spem in Alium are immense, and this concert by the Durham Singers offers a chance to hear it sung amid the glories of Durham Cathedral.

The Durham Singers build up to Spem in Alium with other pieces by Tallis, and music by two later English composers who were greatly influenced by him, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells. The sound world of the Tudor era is never far away from the harmony and structure of their choral music.

Silence and Music by Vaughan Williams was written as part of a collection of partsongs for Elizabeth II, and in its brooding harmony it harks back to Tallis’s darkly mysterious Sancte Deus, which follows it on the programme.

The choir’s assistant musical director, Francesca Massey, conducts Herbert Howells’s Requiem, a deeply moving and personal piece.

It became closely associated in the composer’s mind with the tragic death of his young son, and it was almost fifty years before he allowed it to be performed and published.

In the Requiem, Howells interleaves traditional Latin texts with psalm settings in English to express a hope in the eternal rest and comfort of heaven, a theme that threads its way through much of the music for this concert, and which returns in Vaughan Williams’s partsongs Rest and Valiant-for-Truth.

The Durham Singers usually perform their unaccompanied concerts in smaller venues, but they explained that the architectural magnificence of Spem in Alium and the soaring phrases of Howells’s Requiem make this music ideally suited to performance in Durham Cathedral.

Musical Director Professor Julian Wright said: “This is music by composers whose lives took them into different musical and spiritual moods but who speak to one another clearly, shedding colour and light on one another, and culminating in a musical tapestry as extraordinary as any Renaissance stained-glass window would have been to a pilgrim coming to a Cathedral for the first time on a sunlit morning."

Durham Singers: Spem in Alium, Saturday April 6, 7.30pm, Durham Cathedral. Tickets £15 (students and under 25s £10, children 13 and under free).

Tickets available from or Durham Music Shop, High Street, Langley Moor. For more information tel: 0779 0148062