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What We Really Do. The Tallis Scholars
by Peter Phillips
Second Edition
ISBN: 978-0-95457777-2-8
First published 2003. Second Edition, 2013
The Musical Times Publications

What do the following people have in common: Richard Baker, Sir Paul McCartney, Vanessa Redgrave and Sting? The rather surprising answer is that at various times between 1998 and 2000 they have all appeared with The Tallis Scholars, taking the role of narrator in Sir John Tavener’s In the Month of Athyr. This is just one nugget of information about the celebrated ensemble founded by Peter Phillips in 1973 which is to be found within the pages of this fascinating and entertaining book.
What We Really Do was first published in 2003, when The Tallis Scholars turned thirty. To mark the group’s fortieth anniversary Peter Phillips has somehow found the time to compile a second edition, which brings the group’s story up to date. The revision includes a brand-new second chapter on touring. Some of the appendices have been updated too: for example the discography includes the details of the group’s recordings over the last ten years; there’s also an up to date list, to the end of 2012, of all the singers who have sung with the ensemble and how many appearances each has made.
That list of singers is a long one and includes many illustrious names. Between the first concert on 3 November 1973 and 31 December 2012 The Tallis Scholars have given no fewer than 1785 concerts. Phillips himself has missed a mere ten of those concerts, which in itself is a remarkable achievement. Five singers have taken part in more than 1000 concerts, the ‘leader’ being bass Donald Grieg who, since 1984, has chalked up a remarkable 1309 appearances with the group. Enough of statistics, I hear you say: what else is in this book?
At one level Peter Phillips has written the history of The Tallis Scholars and a fascinating story it is. However, as we shall see, the book is much more than that for he includes a substantial amount of expert, insightful comment about the performance practice of Renaissance polyphony. That’s something on which he’s uniquely qualified to comment since The Tallis Scholars have been hugely influential in the establishment of polyphony as an important part of musical life over the last four decades; indeed, they’ve been in the forefront of that process.
In some ways this is a humbling book to read for it makes us realise how much we take for granted. In 2013 we are used to hearing small specialist groups perform polyphony, both on disc and in concert, to an amazingly high standard but it wasn’t always so, as Phillips reminds us. Furthermore, The Tallis Scholars seem to have been a formidable presence on the musical scene for ever - acclaimed by the New York Times as ‘The rock stars of Renaissance vocal music’ – and they and Gimell, the label that is dedicated to issuing their recordings, have been laden with awards and accolades. Yet the road to that position of eminence has not been smooth: as Phillips frankly admits both the ensemble and the Gimell label have had rocky patches along the way.
The story of The Tallis Scholars is a fascinating one and one, moreover, that shows how precarious the music business can be. Founded as an amateur group in 1973, the ensemble was initially unnamed and only acquired its title in 1976, when they gave their first concert outside Oxford. They turned professional only in 1983. For many years Phillips and his singers trod a somewhat lonely and rocky path and it was touring, primarily in Australia, Japan and the USA that sustained them. This wasn’t so much a question of finance – it seems doubtful that the tours did much more than achieve break-even – but more that frequent performing as a small, tight ensemble under touring conditions was a key element in honing the group’s style. It’s also interesting, and occasionally surprising, to read how differently polyphony was received in different parts of the world, especially in the early days. I was at first amazed to read that The Tallis Scholars were completely cold-shouldered by the BBC until 1987 – a point to which Peter Phillips returns in one of his Spectator articles in the appendices to this book. However, I then reflected that the BBC has form in this field, especially with composers.
One aspect among many that caught my eye concerned the question of ideal concert venues. You might suppose, as I did, that the ideal place for a concert of polyphony would be in an imposing medieval church; after all, the music was often first heard in such places. However, Peter Phillips expresses a preference for modern concert halls with good, clear acoustics, such as those in Birmingham, Lucerne or Taipei; the resonance of an ecclesiastical building can blunt the clarity which he always seeks to attain.
The book contains a fascinating chapter on the performance of polyphony. Phillips is, rightly, proud of being a pioneer, right from the outset, in the use of a basic ensemble of ten voices, two per part, with the top line doubled. He also has much of great interest to say on the rigours – and, for some, addiction – of global touring. There are two chapters devoted to this; one was written in November 1996 and was part of the first edition of the book while the second was written as recently as August 2012.
Phillips is engagingly frank at times. For example, he refers to the “timid accuracy” of the performances in the group’s amateur days. He also says that the ensemble might well have foundered had it not been for an invitation in 1983 to undertake an extensive Australian tour in 1985. The Tallis Scholars also encountered some choppy waters in the 1990s, despite the “break out” of winning the Gramophone Record of the Year award in 1987. Happily, their profile “slowly changed for the better” from 1996 onwards. Gimell Records also has not experienced a smooth history and Phillips does not gloss over the difficulties that have been faced – and overcome – along the way, not least the label’s brief and near-terminal time as a member of the Polygram group. Talking of the sound for which he constantly strives with The Tallis Scholars Phillips refers at one point to wanting always a “core of steel” in the group’s sound. It seems clear to me that when one reads of the ups and downs that both The Tallis Scholars and Gimell have encountered over the years one has to conclude that a similar “core of steel” must have characterised Phillips’ own approach – and, indeed, that of Steve Smith, his partner in Gimell. Without their determination, dedication and insistence on perfection an ensemble and a record label that are nowadays by-words for excellence might well not have survived for anything like as long as they have.
As if his tireless schedule of conducting The Tallis Scholars were not enough, Peter Phillips somehow has found time to write a regular column for The Spectator for thirty years and a lively selection of eighteen of these articles, written between 1987 and 2012, is included as an appendix. These are entertaining, thought-provoking, interesting and often sharply observed; there must, surely, be scope for separate publication of a larger selection of these articles one day. Other appendices include an extensive essay on ‘Voice Ranges in Tallis’; there’s a list of all the singers who have sung with The Tallis Scholars over the last forty years and details of other musicians with whom they’ve collaborated – can it be the Claudio Abbado who is listed with one appearance in 1998 among the organists & harpsichordists?; and there’s a full discography within which admirers will be pleased to note details of three forthcoming discs, two of music by Taverner and the sixth volume of Josquin Masses.
The book is copiously illustrated. The typeface is beautifully clear, something which I greatly appreciated, and I only noticed a tiny handful of typographical and other slips, all of them extremely minor.
I found this book very enjoyable and stimulating. Peter Phillips writes clearly, with enthusiasm and candour, and his book is an entertaining read as well as a fascinating and at times revealing one. This is an absorbing account of the inside story of one of the world’s premier vocal ensembles.
John Quinn
An absorbing account of the inside story of one of the world’s premier vocal ensembles.
Click here to read an interview with Peter Phillips and Steve Smith to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Gimell Records