The Tallis Scholars are the rock stars of a capella Renaissance polyphony. Started by Peter Philllips while a student at St. John’s College, Oxford, back in 1973, they had their first concert as TTS in 1976. From there, they developed “the sound”: distinctive, haunting, uplifting. It’s most dazzling when you see them live in concert, but their recordings are equally powerful.
Learning to sing Renaissance polyphony has been one of the great unexpected gifts in my life. What sets polyphony apart from other choral work is the equalness of the 4 (or 5 or 6) lines. It’s not a melody and a harmony. It’s a much more complex weaving of four independent parts that also, of course, stack to create chords. Polyphony requires rock-solid precision to allow the chords to lock in as they should. The group needs to feel the underlying beats absolutely and breath as one organism. The requisite blending of voices one into the next is very sensual. When it all comes together, it’s a heady experience.
For me, it also means finding a transcendent connection to the words of the Mass, either in the Mass parts themselves (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Angus Dei, Benedictus), or in settings of Bible texts: Ego Sum Panis Vivus—-I am the Bread of Life.
Peter Phillips, on the other hand, does not have this connection to the words of “the Christian fairy tale”; for him it is the brilliance of the music alone. Fair enough.
I am looking forward to singing under his direction. In his book What We Really Do, a memoir/telling of the history of the group, Phillips offers a peek into the Tallis Scholars’s personality as a group in a “Singers’ Argot,” many of which made me roar with laughter, sometimes from how understated or absurd the descriptions, and sometime because I was writing mental “yes how true” notes in the margin.
Here are just a few:
“Gumby part. A non-academic term to describe a cantus firmus part in polyphony. It is a matter of some satisfaction to most of us that the majority of gumby parts were written for tenors, who, as everyone knows, are the divas of their trade.”
“Let’s just start it” Another of my catch phrases in rehearsal. The upshot is that we can find ourselves singing the beginning of a piece several times and never the rest of it. Mass settings are particularly vulnerable to this oversight: we get to know the Kyrie intimately but not the Agnus or the middle of the Credo. [Major head nodding on my part here.]
“Do you know the Victoria Requiem? Good. See you at Heathrow.”
[Said to a singer substituting for a regular. A confirmation of their disinclination to rehearse more than the barest minimum. If you knew how complex the Victoria Requiem is, you’d roar with laughter here too.]
As part of this workshop, this pick-up choir will sing at the 10:30 Mass at the great San Vitale in Ravenna (pictured above), and then after a week of rehearsals (and some beach time), give a concert in Rimini on Sept. 6.
And with this post, I am taking a blog break, to have time to learn the music before I go. Wouldn’t want the American contingent to seem lesser than the English and Italian singers.
I will be back midSeptember, and I hope you’ll come back then too.