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Early Music 32.3 (2004) 466-468

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A Tallis Scholars' retrospective

Peter Phillips , What we really do (London: Musical Times Publications, 2003), £16.99

This engaging book tells the story of the Tallis Scholars, and Peter Phillips's 30-year quest for perfectly performed polyphony. Its aims are modest: to document how the Tallis Scholars came into being; to explain why the ensemble sounds the way it does; to chart the group's survival and commercial success over three decades, partly as a concert-giving group, partly as the sole artists featured on that plucky little recording label, Gimell Records; and to give a flavour of what it means and feels like to be a day-by-day Tallis Scholar, whether as a singer in the group, or as Peter Phillips himself.

Embedded within this narrative are plenty of statements about Phillips's philosophy as a performer. In [End Page 466] essence, nothing has changed since he first expressed his views in the April 1978 issue of Early music. There he wrote: 'We often know exactly when and where [early choral] music was sung, but we do not know so precisely what it sounded like, nor is it possible to find out. Authenticity in a literal sense cannot be the aim of choral music enthusiasts. We can, however, guess at the type of sound produced by 16th-century choirs, and the evidence suggests that imitation of them would be highly undesirable' (p.195). In the new book, Phillips constantly re-emphasizes that viewpoint, arguing that his decisions as a performer have always been led by personal taste, not by musicological argument. To him, the Tallis Scholars cannot be regarded as an early-music ensemble at all, since its sound-world is an entirely modern invention, formulated with the aim of performing early music exactly as he wants to hear it.

What, then, has guided his taste? Empiricism and pragmatism are only a part of it. Phillips also openly acknowledges his debt to the Clerkes of Oxenford, the amateur choir invented and directed by David Wulstan, whose golden age (the 1970s) coincided with Phillips's undergraduate days at Oxford University. The Clerkes left few recordings behind them, but the memory of their concerts lingers in Phillips's mind—'flawless, like a gem, ... [with] their astonishing sense of line, sung with a perfect legato and excellent tuning'—and he admits to have been 'trying to recapture the sound of the Clerkes ever since I started to worship them and their music-making' (p.143). For that reason, some have argued that the Tallis Scholars must inthe end be reckoned to fall 'within the pale of the so-called "authenticity movement"' (Richard Taruskin), since their model, the Clerkes, more openly aspired to historical verisimilitude, in a bid to evoke the sound-world of the 'great English Sixteenth-Century Choir'.

I wonder, though, how far even the Clerkes of Oxenford aimed to step along that particular path. True, David Wulstan's advocacy of a high performing pitch was grounded on his interpretation of historical evidence; his choice of choir-size drew on documented facts; and his preferred building for performing with the Clerkes was a small, resonant chapel or church. (Interestingly, in all of those 'authenticist' respects Peter Phillips has gone his own way. The Tallis Scholars sings at whatever pitch best suits the group, almost always with two voices to the polyphonic line, and nowadays, for economic reasons, more often in large concert halls than in small churches.) Other key aspects of the Clerkes' sound, however, were never claimed to be 'period practice': for instance, the foregrounding of the polyphony over any expressive or rhetorical engagement with the words; the preference for extreme metrical regularity; the elimination of vibrato; the elimination, too, of dynamic change, both within single notes (I can still hear Wulstan in rehearsal exhorting his singers not to 'bulge') and in the projection of whole melodic lines; above all, a refusal to tangle with the very area of performance practice in which the supply of available evidence could truly have allowed some degree...


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pp. 466-468
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Archived 2008
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