The Challenges of Researching in a Tight-Knit Body of Work

After my first exposure to the music of Thomas Tallis in Music 241 last year, I started listening to more Renaissance music and especially 16th century choral music.  I found Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium during a YouTube search and was immediately transfixed by its beauty and complexity.  Since learning of its use in modern media, for instance E.L. James’ reference to the motet in Fifty Shades of Grey, I have been interested it the way modern listeners conceive of a 16th century motet.  In my first draft, I sought to explain why listeners have wrongly valued Spem in alium’s contrapuntal complexity above its sacred intent.

In researching Spem in alium, I have had relative ease finding research materials because the topic is narrow and there are several researchers interested in the piece.  I have struggled, however to formulate a thesis from the research I have done.  The articles and chapters I have read closely relate to one another.  The author of one article often references the work of another scholar, and so much of the information in each of my sources overlaps.   For instance, Suzanne Cole cites a host of Tallis scholars in her book Thomas Tallis and his music in Victorian England.  After reading the articles Cole cites, I found that every scholar analyses the same document on Spem in alium’s origins and gives a near identical account of the history of its manuscripts.  Though scholars have written many articles and books on Tallis and Spem in alium, these sources seem to use the same small body of research to derive new theories.  I am struggling to discern which theories are best founded and how I might use the research they offer to bolster my ideas.   

Like Professor Epstein’s forest metaphor, I am having difficulty finding sources that directly relate to my thesis.  I am studying Spem in alium’s value and intent as a sacred work, however I have not found many sources relating to this aspect of the piece.  The articles and chapters I have read primarily concern themselves with the motet’s ambiguous history, and less with Tallis’ hope for the piece.  I have adopted H.B. Collins’ speculation that Spem in alium is responsive to the Reformation’s mistreatment of Catholics, but I have only found one musical analysis of the piece to back this claim.  Although there are scholars whose work supports my thesis, I am having difficulty finding specific evidence to legitimize my claims.

Despite the challenges of researching, my appreciation for Spem in alium has grown tremendously.  Listening to the piece with a historical context in mind makes my experience of it much richer.  I am thankful to Tallis for his mastery of counterpoint, but even more for his thoughtful setting of a text.  I now have the pleasure of associating a beautiful piece with notions of forgiveness and unity.

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