by Roderick Conway Morris

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What they really do

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 11 November 2003
NKV Japan
The Tallis Scholars singing in the Sistine Chapel,
Rome, 1994



The Tallis Scholars are exceptional as a professional ensemble in singing almost exclusively Renaissance, Latin-texted, polyphonic sacred music. The group's founder, Peter Phillips, cheerfully points out that this music 'was considered elitist and incomprehensible even in the years when it was being written.' But the Scholars have created a durable contemporary audience for it, performed more than 1,300 concerts all over the world and made nearly 50 recordings, which have sold more than a million copies.

Phillips has just turned 50, and to mark this and the anniversary of the group's first concert - in Oxford in early November 30 years ago - he has published an entertaining and informative memoir: 'What We Really Do.' As followers of Phillips's regular monthly column in The Spectator will expect, the book is liberally laced with humor and original insight. It also gives a vivid impression of what it is like to conduct and sing this music, and of the often punishing existence of a perpetually touring ensemble.

As Phillips explained at an informal birthday recital of the Scholars at Wilton's Music Hall in the East End of London, the book's title was 'inspired by those deeply offensive people who still occasionally come up to us after a concert and ask: 'So what is it you really do?' since to them the idea of making a living out of what they have just heard is clearly a rank impossibility.'

One of the last culprits to hazard this gauche inquiry was the British ambassador in Rome. This was at the end of a year in which the Scholars had visited the city three times, performing to packed houses at Santa Maria Maggiore, where the group marked the 400th anniversay of the death of the Italian master of polyphony, Palestrina, and at the Auditorio Santa Cecilia. They had also enjoyed the rare privilege of singing Allegri's 'Miserere' in the Sistine Chapel, which was broadcast live on national television.

Phillips's fascination with Renaissance polyphony goes back to his school days at Winchester. He won an organ scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford, where one of his contemporaries was Tony Blair. He started a new choir for the college chapel, also recruiting singers from the university's women's colleges, some of whom were soon to be among the first Tallis Scholars.

Traditionally in chapel and cathedral choirs the higher registers were sung by boys. 'I wanted to do this magnificent music with the best people I could find. And my attitude has always been that children cannot be as good at the very highest professional level,' said Phillips.

The Scholars stand somewhat apart from some of their more 're-creationist' colleagues in the baroque and period instrument world. 'Authenticity is not very easy to achieve. We have no idea what the music sounded like at the time. People should know too, for example, that in the Sistine Chapel throughout the 16th century, there were no boys in the regular choir, or castrati for that matter - they came later. The top lines were sung by adult males, who either sang falsetto or in some extraordinary way we simply don't know about.'

Equally, although the music was composed by writers inspired by faith, and as Phillips puts it in his book, much of it was 'founded in mathematical complexity which proceeded from the very unmodern belief that the most suitable way to praise God was to impress Him with your learning,' Phillips believes that what this music has to offer above all today is a unique type of 'sonic' experience, which can be appreciated by people all over the globe, regardless of their creeds.

'We are secular outfit, and we are as likely to sing in a modern concert hall as a church,' he said. 'Indeed, in the former the acoustics are often better for our music, where you need to hear with equal clarity every line. So we go back again and again to, for example, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, where they can absorb the atmosphere this music creates, without in any way being involved with Christianity.'

It is an index of Phillips's initial ambition, perhaps even recklessness, that the second concert he organized in 1973 included a performance of Thomas Tallis's so-called 40-part motet, 'Spem in alium,' an enthralling but extremely challenging piece, in those days seldom attempted, which involves coordinating five separate choirs - a moment's loss of control can result in a terrifying, multi-voice pile-up.

The motet was chosen by Ted Hughes to be performed by the Tallis Scholars at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, and the poet left funds for the purpose. The group's recording of 'Spem,' although made nearly 20 years ago, remains one of their top sellers. 'I worked out that last year I'd done 'Spem' 18 times, but Tallis himself almost certainly never heard it complete. It was his swan song, an idealistic enterprise, but he never seems to have managed to find 40 suitable singers to perform it,' said Phillips.

The ensemble's recording history is one of the pillars of its success and longevity. The self-effacing wizard behind this is Steve Smith, who in 1977 asked if he could record the group for his final portfolio for his degree in music and musical recording. He has since devoted his career to perfecting the recording of polyphony, which poses particular technical problems. Smith and Phillips co-founded their own label, Gimell, through which - without ever hearing the group live - many listeners have come to recognize the inimitable hall-mark Tallis 'sound.'

Smith has also been responsible for keeping the Scholars up to the minute with the latest technology. The label was one of the first to record digitally. And on the advent of the CD, Smith and Phillips instantly agreed that, with its bright, crisp, unforgiving quality, this was the ideal vehicle for the Tallis sound. Gimell was the second label to place an order with Britain's then sole plant manufacturing CDs, ahead of the major players in the industry. Their CDs sold so fast that the factory could not keep up with their constant orders for more.

For some reason the powers-that-then-were at the BBC's classical music network, Radio 3, took against Phillips and his distinctive interpretations of Renaissance polyphony, and the Scholars discovered that they had been formally banned from the airwaves. This would almost certainly have wrecked the chances of a less dedicated and determined ensemble. But in 1987 the Scholars won the 'Gramophone' Record of the Year award for their CD of Masses by the Flemish composer Josquin Des Près, coming top not only in the early music category, but also beating the best records in all categories, a feat never achieved before or since by an early music group.

Days before the prizes were announced, word reached Phillips that the decade-long BBC ban had been lifted. 'The timing was suspiciously precise,' he said. 'But then all doors were flung open to us.'

Nevertheless, in due course, Gimell's sales began to slide along with those of the entire, well-nigh saturated CD market. Phillips and Smith reconsidered an offer made by Philips Records in the early 1990's to buy a share in the label. At the time they had reasoned: 'Why share good profits with a multinational?' But it now seemed to offer the lifeline of an infinitely larger-scale publicity and distribution network. Accordingly, Phillips and Smith agreed to sell them 51 percent of Gimell.

As it turned out, the collapse in CD sales was more serious than anybody in the industry had realized. After several mergers and takeovers, Phillips and Smith found that they were 'owned by a company that was principally engaged in making and marketing whisky.' With no corporate money coming in, Gimell was effectively bankrupt. The duo's only hope now was to bid for the remaining assets to win back the rights to their recordings.

'We gambled everything, absolutely everything we had,' said Phillips. 'If one of the majors had bid against us, we would never have been able to match them. We would have lost all the recordings we had ever made. Miraculously, our bid was successful and we won back not only the back list, but the new recordings we had made, yet to be released.'

Not that the Scholars are resting on their laurels. They are also about to release two DVDs.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023