Omnes angeli

for 40-part choir

by Vaughan McAlley (2012)

Score excerpt

The idea for Omnes angeli came to me when I decided to organize a casual performance of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium for my fortieth birthday. With forty voices voices to be assembled, I decided to try writing a forty-part piece of my own. The text for Omnes angeli comes from the Book of Revelation 7:11-12:

And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.

Omnes angeli was premiered on 26 October 2013, in a concert at The Dome, 333 Collins Street, Melbourne. John O’Donnell conducted Ensemble Gombert and guest singers:

Hildy Essex
Sarah Harris
Claerwen Jones
Kate McBride
Megan Nelson
Katherine Norman
Maria Pisani
Carol Veldhoven

Yi Wen Chin
Rebecca Collins
Niki Ebacioni
Jenny Mathers
Kathryn Pisani
Katrina Renard
Leonie Tonkin
Belinda Wong-Barker

Peter Campbell
Tim van Nooten
Andrew Raiskums
Ben Owen
Sam Qualtrough
Michael Stephens
Stuart Tennant
Matt Thomson

Richard Bolitho
Catherine Cowie
Will Cuningham
Robin Czuchnowski
Brian Johnson
Loclan MacKenzie-Spencer
John Weretka
Kim Worley

David Brown
Tim Daly
Josh McLeod
Andrew Murray
Mike Ormerod
Tom Reid
Julien Robinson
Jonathan Wallis

I wrote the following notes for the program:

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—ones 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 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!