Tentatio – Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
One of the works included in the Tallis Festival 2014 is Tentatio by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. This was the first-ever Tallis Festival commission in 2006, with the aim of increasing the range of companion-pieces for Spem in alium, the 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis that forms the centre-piece of the Festivals.
Tentatio is an unaccompanied 40-part choral work setting (in Latin) the biblical account of Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness; it is written for five separate eight-part choirs. Jaakko Mäntyjärvi discusses Tentatio further below.
The links below are a recording of the world première, at the final concert of the Tallis Festival, on 19 November 2006 at St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London.
Mantyjarvi – Tentatio Part 1 – Tallis 12 Festival Choir
Mantyjarvi – Tentatio Part 2 – Tallis 12 Festival Choir
Mantyjarvi – Tentatio Part 3 – Tallis 12 Festival Choir
Mantyjarvi – Tentatio Part 4 – Tallis 12 Festival Choir
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi discusses the origins of Tentatio in 2006
“It started as a mad idea. But these things usually do. Exmoor Singers is a London-based chamber choir which first came to my attention when they performed my Four Shakespeare Songs in 2004. In autumn 2005, I found out that Exmoor Singers was in the habit of organising a regular Tallis Weekend, involving inviting 100+ choral singers – friends, acquaintances and former members of the choir – to rehearse and perform a concert programme that always included the 40-part motet Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis. On this particular occasion, the programme also included Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil, and it was principally because of these two pieces (and also, though secondarily, because my Psalm 150 in Grandsire Triples also happened to be on the programme) that my wife and I decided to go to London for the Tallis Weekend. It was a fascinating experience both musically and socially, and in the course of this weekend I began to contemplate a companion piece to Spem in alium, using the same 40-parts.
A Biblical text in Latin seems a logical choice to match Spem. The number 40 appears in several places in the Bible, and a suitable topic soon suggested itself: Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness while being tempted by the Devil. The passage is almost complete in dialogue and thus lends itself well to antiphonal writing. I immediately realised that by regrouping the eight five-part choirs of Spem (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass) into four eight part choirs SSAATTBB, I would have eight baritones left over who could then form the ensemble singing the lines of the Devil.
At the Tallis weekend party I floated this idea to James Jarvis, music director of Exmoor Singers, and rather to my surprise he seized on it enthusiastically. So much so, that a few months and a number of emails later I found myself writing this piece to a commission from Exmoor Singers! The name Tentatio was chosen as a working title. I thought I would come up with something with a bit more punch later; yet here we are, and Tentatio is still the title of the piece. Temporary solutions do tend to become permanent; even the Finale file that contains the final score of the piece is entitled tentatio final layout test…
The story goes that Spem in alium was written by Tallis in response to the likewise 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem by Alessandro Striggio in a sort of musical arms race, and it must be said that Spem did come out as a more substantial piece than Ecce, even if the gargantuan scale on which it was conceived placed great restrictions on the scope of the vocal writing. Like Ecce, Spem is very much a spatial piece; a major part of its impact comes from the placement of its performers around the audience. This provided the incentive for me to use the spatial dimension in a slightly different way in Tentatioand for using a ‘blocky’ structure (antiphonal homophonic textures, to use the proper technical term) instead of through-composed polyphony. Indeed, it would have been an exercise in futility to try to emulate and or exceed Spem.Tentatiois better described as a homage to Tallis and an exercise in choral scoring and the use of the spatial dimension rather than as a piece that specifically requires 40 independent voices parts to perform. The climax of the piece is, however, a 40-note cluster…
Practical consideration led to the extensive use of an E-flat pedal point and to punctuating the piece with one or more handbells, to faciliate the choir keeping on pitch. And, of course, the Devil being involved, there are lots and lots of tritones (diabolus in musica).”
Go to full information and booking form for Tallis Festival 2014 here.