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Legendary choral conductor Harry Christophers on devotional music of the ancient past

Legendary choral conductor Harry Christophers on devotional music of the ancient past

And its resonance through the ages, in conversation with Maxim Boon.

For more than four decades, British chamber choir The Sixteen have set the international gold standard for ensemble singing. Founded by legendary choral conductor Harry Christophers in the late ‘70s, The Sixteen are expert exponents of repertoire spanning virtually the entirety of the Western Classical tradition, from works of Renaissance polyphony through to contemporary compositions and world premieres.

Harry Christophers

Music from both ends of this spectrum will be on offer when The Sixteen make their highly anticipated return to Australia in March. Maxim Boon [MB] spoke to Harry Christophers [HC] about his program of ancient and modern devotional works, An Immortal Legacy.

[MB]: The concept for this concert explores a fascinating dialogue between British Catholic composers of the 16th-century, who risked their lives to exalt their beliefs through their art, and more recent composers, including Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, who were influenced by this powerful and passionate music. Can you share a little more about the history chronicled through this program?

[HC]: The Tudor composers featured certainly led very risky lives. Tallis served under both Protestant and Catholic monarchs and witnessed firsthand the reformation. I have always felt he kept his head down and outwardly kept the faith whether it be Protestant or Catholic. Having said that there is no doubt he remained a Catholic in his heart. William Byrd remained a Catholic through and through despite what was going on around him. He lived in constant fear of his life; was constantly punished, mostly in fines, but celebrated his faith in private as one of many recusant Catholics. Thankfully he kept his head, literally.

Today, of course, we live in a multi-faith society where we strive to reach out through our music a sense of spirituality. There is no doubt that the composers writing sacred music today are highly influenced by the great composers of the 16th-century. Our program concentrates, in the main, on what I would term our “grassroots” repertoire, that of the English Renaissance. In addition, I have focused on two figures from the twentieth century who are undoubtedly among England’s finest composers, Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett.

I was introduced to the music of both Tallis and Tippett from a very early age. As a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, we would perform some of Tippett’s Spirituals as anthems at Evensong but it was Tallis’ O Nata Lux that was to have a profound effect on me. 

This twenty bar motet is, without doubt, one of the finest miniatures of all choral music and there I was, as a chorister in the 1960s, singing where Tallis stood as a lay clerk in the 1540s. Tippett adored the music of Thomas Tallis. His legendary choir at Morley College emphasized a penchant for early music (and in particular that of the English Renaissance) and new music with precious little from the intervening years.

Britten, likewise, was greatly influenced by Elizabethan England. His opera Gloriana, which depicts the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was composed in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. 

Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux

The Choral Dances are a perfect complement to the madrigals by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Morley. It is here that another miniature captures my imagination; can there be any better madrigalian gem than Gibbons’ The Silver Swan?

[MB]: The repertoire you’ll be presenting is sourced from a cannon of British choral music spanning centuries. Why is it that Britain’s musical heritage boasts so many choral gems?

[HC]: Despite the reformation in the 16th-century, we as a nation have managed to maintain a choral tradition through our cathedrals and chapels. Despite numerous changes to the liturgy over the years and the financial concerns of many of our historic buildings, this tradition has been preserved and during the course of the 20th-century indeed flourished. During the heyday of the CD we saw the rise of sacred music from numerous eras, vast amounts of research and sourcing of old and new music. The collegiate choirs of Oxford and Cambridge and the main cathedrals choirs such as Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral and the choirs of Winchester, Wells and Salisbury in particular have ensured that this music reaches a wider audience and congregation. 

Ever since the Renaissance there have been composers who have spent their life writing sacred music. Of course, our historic cathedrals and abbeys were built for music and Choral music in them sounds as wonderful and atmospheric today as it did when they were built.

[MB]: All the music you’ll be performing is sacred in its substance, but in contrast to their contemporary counterparts, the most ancient works on the program were functional compositions, written to serve a practical religious purpose. Why is it important to preserve this wonderful music in the secular setting of the concert hall today?

In Renaissance times the only employment for composers was in the court or the chapel and of course, the two went in hand. If composers such as Tallis and Byrd were living in later centuries they would have been the Haydn, Brahms, Mahler and Britten of their days. It is very important for groups such as The Sixteen to champion the wealth of music emanating from these early eras and bring them to a wider public. This is great music and you do not have to “be of faith” to enjoy the emotion and spirituality this music evokes. 

[MB]: The span of history represented across the program is vast, even by classical music standards. Do you approach the performance of Gibbons, Byrd and Tallis in a different way to Britten, Tippet and Macmillan, and do you observe any historically informed performance techniques?

[HC]: Ah! Historically informed performance - well we don’t get off to a very good start do we as I use adult female voices on the top line and not unbroken boys voices nor do I ask my ladies to sing like boys. But we do perform the music in a style according to the period which relies on everyone being aware of the imitative lines, the counterpoint, and the architecture of the lines, suspensions and cadences. With the later music and in particular the Tippett Spirituals we adopt a much bolder sound. But actually my dictum of singing as you speak and making the words whether they be in Latin or English vibrant, colourful and always expressive is always present. 

[MB]: The Sixteen is one of the world’s greatest chamber choirs, but a choir of relatively few voices needs singers who are capable of both a flawless blend, a keen sense of ensemble, and the ability to show expressive individuality. What are the key qualities of the typical Sixteen vocalist and how exhaustive is the process of recruitment?

Every singer in The Sixteen has an excellent instrument and is stylistically aware. I think what makes the group different from many others is that I allow my singers to sing and express themselves though their art. I want to see their personalities come to life. Singers be they in opera, performing lieder, in a consort or in an ensemble have to communicate with their audience. I ask The Sixteen to constantly maintain energy. Most of the group have been with me for many years and they can read each other like a book but they must always be supportive of each other and be a good colleague. When new people come in, they learn very quickly from the more experienced members but likewise, the older members are kept alert and have to maintain their quality.

The Sixteen performs An Immortal Legacy on Tuesday 12 March


Maxim Boon

Maxim Boon is a British writer and composer based in Melbourne and the Chief Classical Music Critic for The Age. Formerly the Senior Editor of The Music and Online Editor of Limelight Magazine, he is also a regular contributor to The Guardian, Time Out, Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Review and Arts Hub.


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