Meet the Music Makers: The Tallis Scholars

In conversation with Peter Phillips, founding member and artistic director of the Tallis Scholars:

UChicago Presents: You first got hooked on Renaissance music while you were a student at Oxford. What was your musical life like prior to being bitten by the “polyphony bug” in college, and what was it specifically that drew you to this music?

Peter Phillips: Well I actually got the polyphony bug when I was at high school, when I was around 14. We sang Renaissance music in the chapel choir at this school, and I took some of it often and made some of my fellow 16-year-olds learn it off by heart in fact. And we went in for competition, it was the motet by Victoria, and that's really what got me started. I got an organ scholarship to Oxford, which meant that I had a chapel choir as part of my scholarship, and I already knew that I liked this stuff very much indeed.

I didn't have any background in music prior to that. My family were not musical, and I didn't go to a choir school, which is the normal way of proceeding in England. If you’re a talented eight-year-old, you tend to go and sing and one of the cathedral choirs, but I didn't have that opportunity. I did when I was in the previous school to the one I was at when I was 14, I took part in Gilbert and Sullivan operas as a treble. I sang some of the some of the more challenging roles, so we say I sang Patience in Patience and I sang Josephine in Pinafore. For a pretty young chap, that was quite taxing, and I must say [laughs].

UCP: The program you’re presenting at Rockefeller Chapel in December is called “A Renaissance Christmas.” I’m sure this isn’t a typical holiday performance - can you tell me about some of the works you’ll be performing?

PP: The main work is a double choir mass by Palestrina called Hodie Christus Natus est, which carries its own description in its title. That double choir mass ends up with a particularly splendid last movement, which is what Palestrina in. It’s all based on his own motet, so we're singing that as well. So you get the whole package, you get the motet and you get the parody mass based on the motet.

Then I've broken it up and surrounded it with Christmas-style motets. The Byrd Lullaby is not exactly and motet, it's actually not even an anthem. It’s more of a consort song, really. The Praetorius Magnificat is certainly grand. That thing is a Magnificat with what we call “Christmas carols” actually embedded in the music. So I think the public will be able to hear that quite easily.

UCP: In addition to group’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Renaissance works, you have also performed works by living composers such as Arvo Pärt, Nico Muhly, and Eric Whitacre. Are there any living composers you haven’t worked with yet whose music you’re particularly excited about?

PP: That’s a good question. I was just talking today to James MacMillan, the great Scottish composer. We've never done any of his music for some reason; of the great living composers, I've concentrated on Arvo Pärt more than MacMillan, but I realized I was missing out.  We were talking about assessing of the Miserere that he did. Because that would go very well, we wanted two other setting up the Miserere which we which sing quite regularly we've seen quite regularly, like the Allegri. So I was quite interested in seeing whether we could sing that piece, and I think we probably can. So in answer to your question, I would very much like to work with James MacMillan.

UCP: One of your more recent distinctions is the establishment of a choral foundation at Merton College at Oxford, which, despite being one of the oldest colleges in the university, didn’t have a choral foundation until 2008. What has been your experience leading these young singers, especially given the Tallis Scholars’ Oxford origins?

PP: It’s true, it's extraordinary that the most beautiful-sounding chapel in Oxford, and the most magnificent-looking building, had no Choral Foundation. As you may known, some of the later colleges like Magdalen and New College, were founded at least a hundred years later and they were set up with a proper choral foundation with a boys school was the normal fashion. We did set up what’s called scholarships, of which are now at least twenty, and it's turned into a fine chapel choir, one of the best, I think, in Oxford or Cambridge.

UCP: Perhaps one of the Tallis Scholars’ best-cited accomplishments is Gimell Records, the record label founded in 1980 dedicated to producing recordings of the Tallis Scholars. I know you’ve spoken at length about both the positive and negative aspects of the ever-evolving recorded music industry – but from a more artistic or academic perspective, what role do you think recordings play in the history and identity of this music?

PP: Well I think that recording is absolutely essential, because a concert is gone in a single evening. What you have afterwards is the memory of the people who were there, which may be inaccurate. A recording, however, is like a photograph; it’s actual evidence of what can be done with this music, and from those recordings you can sort of proceed on to the next stage, which will be concerts and recordings which come out of building upon what was done in those original recordings. I think those recordings are absolutely crucial. You can’t take away from them, they’re absolute. You may not approve of the way they’re made, that is to say, they’re artificial. A concert is not artificial, it’s live and human a recording is, in a sense, neither of those things. But fifty years later, all you've got is the recording.

I think it's important to make these recordings as good as they can be, but I don't think a recording should be the remake of a concert. I think you should just make the recordings as good as they can be, with all modern technology or everything you like. Keep out the bus noise, the aircraft noise, the children playing next door, you don't want all that. You want it as clean and as clear as it can be to represent the music to future generations.

UCP: I understand you actually changed your recording venue for a while in an effort to do exactly that, to eliminate some of the outside noise that you were experiencing at Merton college.

PP: Well, that's quite a long story, but we essentially only had two recording venues. We started in Merton years ago; we then moved to this country church in Norfolk in the hope that it would be much quieter and produce a good atmosphere for concentrating on this kind of music. It's beautiful church, but it actually turned out not to be so quiet, of course, because the countryside just isn't that quiet anymore – except around here actually where I am in Portugal, but I don't think we're going to all troop out here.

So we went back to Merton and recorded in the middle of the night. That was the eventual answer to that problem. Except, you never know when people are going to sing at their best, frankly. It's a compromise. I mean, these recordings are not perfect, you know, it's just not possible. One does one’s best to make them as good as they can be, and that’s all you can do.

UCP: I’ve heard you speak in past interviews that Renaissance music seems to attract a fairly specific kind of audience. How have your methods for engaging new audiences changed over the Tallis Scholars’ lifetime?

PP: Well, I can’t say I know where you got that quotation from, but I wouldn’t say that Renaissance music appeals to any sort of definable band of people, of no particular age, and there is no particular cultural background, and I can prove that by saying that we go to China and Japan that have no Christian background, they don’t understand Latin, of course, most people don't.

And we still get big crowds; we’re about to do our sixteenth or seventeenth tour to Japan, for example. They must just like the sound of the music, because it's just how we attracted, because how we’ve gotten them into those concert halls, I don't really know. We’ve kept the same basic formula, which is to do really great music, – what I think some of the best music ever written – as well as we possibly can. We try to keep a very high average standard of performance practice and of actual choice of repertoire. I think that should be enough, shouldn’t it?

I haven't I haven't given any sort of titles or clever presentation. We don't dress up in costumes, and we don't put the candles on and all the rest. We just, we just stand there and perform some of the greatest music that there is.

UCP: Absolutely, I think it speaks to the power of the music if it doesn't require anything else on top of that.

PP: Well what you’ve got to understand is, if you rely on the Christian element that's immediately restricting your audience; if you if you rely on the kind of dressing up, or “spoofing up” as I’d call it, then you're going to restrict is in a different way. I tried not to join the fads. In the 40 years we've been going, there have been loads of fads that have come and gone about how to pronounce the word in the original text and the like, or really just efforts to present the music as anything other than what it is, but I’ve really tried to stay away from those practices. Ultimately I think that was a good choice, because we've got a new audiences who have their aims set, but I'm not appealing to those either, we’re just doing it.

UCP: 2018 marks the Tallis Scholars’ 45th anniversary, which was founded in 1973 while you were still an undergraduate. Does the group have any plans to celebrate that milestone?

PP: Nothing in this year, I'm afraid. We've got 80-something concerts all around the world this year, it's quite enough. I don't need I don't need to waive the banner. Maybe at the 50th, but I'm not sure I can face it. The 40th was great, it was a great year and I really think that the end of all that trumpeting [laughs].

What I'm more interested in, of course, is finding projects that are really interesting to do, and recently Arvo Pärt has been one of those. That timed in with his 80th birthday, actually which was very helpful. We joined forces and had a great time promoting him and his music. So really I’m never short of repertoire, because I could do Palestrina and Byrd and Tallis till the cows come home, and everyone would like that. But I personally, want to find some new things to do, and I’m always looking

The one that we’re focusing on at the moment is Josquin, whose anniversary comes up in 2021 – he died nearly 500 years ago. And that’s an important milestone to me, and I'm building towards Josquin’s anniversary.

UCP: Right! I understand that you're trying to record the complete masses of Josquin before the anniversary.

That's right. We've actually recorded them all, and we've released all but four of them so we will be on time I think, unless something goes badly wrong with our planning. And in that season, I want to do all of the masses in a sort of organized series around the world. So I can publish the list of mass title and venue that will it, and that will be a great list. That's what I'm building toward. I find that sort of thing very exciting.

I’d also like to mention briefly that we’re coming to Chicago via an American tour, but we're actually coming from Brazil. I think it shows how the music is spreading around the world. We've been to South America before, but not to Brazil, so this is a first. By the time we get to Chicago, it will be well, so we say [laughs].