You wouldn’t have thought that a musical revolution began in Oxford on Nov. 3, 1973. Not from the looks of the concert that took place at the Church of St. Mary Magdalen there. Peter Phillips, a 20-year-old organ scholar at Oxford University, had gathered some friends to sing unaccompanied vocal works by Ockeghem, Victoria, and Lassus. Some of the music was too difficult for the singers to handle; then again, only about 20 people were in the audience.
Whatever its shortcomings, that concert was the first performance by what would become the Tallis Scholars. Over the next 40 years, the ensemble, under Phillips’s direction, went on to create and epitomize a style of Renaissance singing that has now become the norm. Through persistent touring and dozens of recordings, the Tallis Scholars have become emissaries for Renaissance polyphony and spawned a host of younger groups. Rarely has one ensemble come so strongly to exemplify an entire musical tradition.
“One of the things I think was remarkable about that first concert is that we hit a formula we’ve never deviated from,” said Phillips during a recent phone conversation from Pittsburgh. “Ten of us stood in a semicircle, singing two voices to a part. And we sang nothing but Renaissance music unaccompanied. All this sounds terribly normal now, but there was no group that did that.”
The Tallis Scholars
The ensemble is on tour celebrating its 40th anniversary, and will sing in the Boston Early Music Festival concert series on Saturday. They are no strangers here: According to BEMF’s executive director, Kathleen Fay, this is the Tallis Scholars’ 25th annual appearance in the concert series. Add in performances during the biennial festival itself, and that number rises to an astonishing 40 appearances.
Posterity, however, was the last thing on Phillips’s mind during the early days, when it was still a student group. “I wasn’t going to make a career out of it,” he said. “One didn’t think like that. Money and career and anything that happened in a year’s time were just completely not considered. Next term was ages away.”
Still, he had a conviction that Renaissance music was being ill served by the dominant performance style, which in England meant larger choruses singing with lots of vibrato. “They all sang in this old-fashioned, wobbly kind of way,” said Phillips. “I loved the music but I realized that this was unacceptable. There were fundamental things that were being breached — clarity and tuning.”
After a decade at the student-amateur level, Phillips made the decision that the Tallis Scholars had to become a paid professional group. “It was a very difficult moment, because the people who were used to having us for no money were going to have to start paying for it. And suddenly we had nothing.
“Those were the miracle years, that we survived,” he continued. “Because most groups don’t make it beyond that first stage. I’ve seen it so many times. They get stuck at that semiprofessional level — giving very good shows but not charging anything. And they don’t make the leap.”
Because no established label wanted to record the group, Phillips set up his own label, Gimell, exclusively for the group’s recordings. It was an amazingly foresighted move, anticipating the indie-label movement by decades. When their 1987 Josquin recording was chosen as record of the year by Gramophone magazine, “it absolutely transformed our status. It boosted our level and we started to make decent money.”
Another prescient step was the embrace of CD technology. The compact disc offered breathtaking clarity, allowing the Tallis Scholars’ remarkably well-blended sound to be heard with new vividness and presence. The fact that they were among the first denizens of early music to take up a cutting-edge technology didn’t hurt either. “Suddenly you could hear the middle parts as well as the outer parts,” said Phillips. “And of course that’s what polyphony wants. Records were our ambassadors around the world. We’ve sold huge numbers of records — far more than any rival group.”
The consistency in the Scholars’ sound can be attributed in large part to the fact that the group’s core roster of singers remained remarkably steady from 1983 until about eight years ago. That’s when Phillips decided that “some of these people were too old to do the job as well as they used to do.” It was a difficult process, he acknowledged, but he thought it critical for the group’s future that they be replaced by “a new generation of singers, much younger, who had grown up with the sound of the Tallis Scholars in their ears, and didn’t have to be told anything about what was needed.”
Neither the ensemble nor Phillips shows signs of slowing down. He estimated that the Tallis Scholars will have done almost 100 concerts by the end of this year, more than their average of 60 to 70. He sees no reason to stop. “There’s nothing like giving a concert of this music to thousands of people. There will be nothing more wonderful than that in store.”
Besides, he added, the group will never run out of repertoire, since the Renaissance still teems with unknown masterpieces. Phillips mentioned that he was actively seeking out a new Flemish composer whose music would fill out a future recording, like the collection of works by Jean Mouton that the group released last year.
“There’re many more like him, waiting. Just give me strength and I’ll do it.”