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The Vocal Erotic

October 2013

  • Peter Tregear

The Tallis Scholars tour Australia in October

It is hard to imagine it now, but half a century earlier you would have struggled to find recordings, let alone hear performances (outside those precious few churches still interested in the old liturgical traditions) of music that had been composed before the middle of the seventeenth century. The so-called ‘early music revival’, however, has changed that situation forever.

The combined efforts of performers and scholars across the world (including many who were based in Australia) have uncovered and returned to public consciousness vast quantities of music that otherwise might have once seemed destined to lie unloved or unnoticed in the archives of religious establishments or private collections.

While such an interest in musical archaeology can be traced back at least to the 1720s in Europe (with the creation of an ‘Academy of Ancient Music’ in London) it took both the relatively recent institutionalisation of musicology in universities, and more latterly, the development of hi-fi delity sound recording, to turn the early music revival into a truly global phenomenon with mass appeal.

Like all revolutions, however, this change was not just the result of inevitable historical and cultural processes – it was lead and shaped by individuals of particular passion, vision, and skill. Just such an individual is Peter Phillips who, while still a student at Oxford in the early 1970s, recognised how the cathedral and collegiate choral tradition in England, and the work of pioneer ensembles such as the Clerks of Oxenford, had provided a foundation for the formation of an unaccompanied vocal ensemble that could rival the world’s great chamber music ensembles on the concert platform. Some 2000 concerts and 60 CDs later, the group he founded, The Tallis Scholars, has indeed helped elevate the status of renaissance choral music to that of great concert music for millions worldwide.

A sign of just how far the penetration of this repertoire has gone into the popular consciousness was the recent appropriation of their recording of Thomas Tallis’ motet ‘Spem in alium’ as the imagined soundtrack for one of the (apparently many) sessions of love-making in E. L. James’ best-selling work of erotic fiction Fifty Shades of Grey. One might be hard-pressed, as it were, to understand the erotic potential of such a masterpiece of Renaissance vocal counterpoint (it is written for 40 voices) at first, but the original purpose of such music was in part to create a sonic experience of intoxicating sensuality – so it really is not such a huge step from that aim to the realm of the erotic.

Whatever we might think of such repurposing, however, there is no doubt that this is music that was designed to engender awe in the listener. In this respect, not least, The Tallis Scholars are well-named, for Thomas Tallis’ particular mastery of this style of music’s power has not diminished with the passing of centuries or, indeed, its original liturgical context (in his case the heady, tragic, days of the English Reformation).

Ironically, the Tallis Scholars’ distinctive sound was once considered by critics as ‘sexless’. A performing style that values homogeneity and purity of tone and faultless intonation must, however, have come as a bit of a shock to ears more used to a style of solo singing that is representative of the operatic stage. Now their sound is much imitated (though rarely matched). Like the sound of the fi nest string quartets, it requires great technical skill and subtlety of interpretation both within and across the whole ensemble. The fact that Phillips has been able to maintain such a sound for forty years, despite inevitable changes to the personnel, is a signifi cant achievement in and of itself.

Another has been the decision Phillips made in 1980 to create his own recording label, Gimell, which has ensured that he was not forced to compromise the group’s artistic vision or relinquish the ability to continue to explore new repertoire.

This in almost all cases has meant new old repertoire – the repertoire of extant Renaissance era vocal polyphony is truly vast – but contemporary music has also played a small, but significant, role in the artistic life of the group. In part this is because the style of unaccompanied vocal chamber music that The Tallis Scholars have done so much to promote has, in its turn, encouraged the creation of a repertoire of a number of signifi cant new works by composers such as Eric Whitacre, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener (the latter not to be confused with his English Renaissance forbear John Taverner, the music of whom the group also champions).

The Australia leg of The Tallis Scholars 40th anniversary tour, which also includes concerts in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra, concludes with two concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Tuesday October 29 at 1:30pm and 7:30pm.

Gregorio Allegri’s famous Miserere features in both programmes, alongside works by Eric Whitacre, Arvo Pärt, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis.

Photography by Eric Richmond





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