The idea of voices lifted in song, offering spiritual and philosophical refreshment, is the foundation of Lincoln Center's Music of the Spirit series. And on the evening of April 6, conductor Harry Christophers and The Sixteen‹the choir he founded 26 years ago‹will offer an Eastertide program of music by three distinguished English composers spanning more than five centuries.
"The year 2005 is an important one for Thomas Tallis and Michael Tippett," says Christophers. "It is the 500th anniversary of the death of Tallis, a true icon of Renaissance music. I think, with William Byrd, he was really the finest of the English Renaissance composers. And Tippett, who was born 100 years ago, was one of the first people to program a lot of Renaissance repertoire. I think people forget he was also a conductor. A bit like me, actually, he really championed the music of the Renaissance, as well as of the Baroque and the 20th century."
Aesthetic, as well as historical, connections are easily found between Renaissance polyphony and the choral works of the modern age. Christophers points out that the best 20th-century choral composers‹including Poulenc and Britten‹looked directly to the 16th and 17th centuries for inspiration both technical and expressive. "Certainly there should be no restraint on Renaissance music," says Christophers. "We inject very much passion into it. People can hear us on recording as much as they like, but I often say that to hear The Sixteen live in performance is a completely different kettle of fish."
The April 6 program will conclude with John Tavener's "Song for Athena," which was heard at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997. "This really brought public attention to Tavener," says Christophers. "His music may not have the compositional expertise of Tallis or Tippett. But Tavener has something else to give. There is something about his music that epitomizes people's concern for wanting peace in their lives. I have sort of crowned this program with his music. It has a spiritual, calming quality that is very important. And a choral program needs contrast, always."
Tippett was honored in January throughout the U.K. with centenary performances of his works. He also came in for some carping from the on-line magazine La Scena, which accused him of mediocrity and amateurism. Christophers begs to differ. "As a composer, Tippett is very much a true voice," he declares. "He took a lot of knockings earlier in the century for his pacifist sentiment. And in his later operas, he chose to write his own librettos, which really became a sort of noose around his neck. But having said that, his early operas are very much here to stay. They are performed around the world. His orchestral music is fascinating. It is a great pity he did not write more unaccompanied choral music. Today we are back to a lot of composers placing orchestral music first. But the better ones are saying, 'Look, I mustn't forget the human voice. Because it's important.'"
The Sixteen will perform five spirituals from Tippett's acclaimed 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time. Christophers has a deep background with these works, which he first performed in the 1960s as a boy chorister at Canterbury Cathedral under the tutelage of the remarkable Allan Wickes.
"He was a real extrovert," recalls Christophers, "a one-off. Wickes was not your archetypal organist-choirmaster. People thought of us as the 'angels' of the cathedral. But outside on the playground, we were far from it! One thing Wickes taught me was never to give up on a performance. It could be going bloody awfully. And he would just turn on a piece of magic. You would leave thinking, 'Boy, that was all right!' And the audience would think so, too. He taught us to savor, to really enjoy, singing."
Of the three composers represented on the April 6 program, whose music gave The Sixteen the most trouble? "I suppose the Tippett was the hardest," Christophers reveals. "Any Renaissance music is in our blood. Especially the English and Iberian repertoires. In Renaissance music, you phrase in an arch, tapering away at the end of a phrase. But in Tippett's spiritual arrangements, you need to have much more line. You need to sing to the end of the phrase, you need to be up on the nature of the words, and you need quite a little freedom. Tippett's arrangements are quite complex. But I don't think he ever gets in the way of the very simple message."
Christophers returns repeatedly to the link between the architecture and the music of the Renaissance period. "The music," he continues, "is very much based on architectural principles, and the whole idea of the phrase as the arch of a building: a cathedral abbey, or perhaps the proscenium of a theater. That shape is always present in the music of the period. It is very galling to hear a group doing this repertoire with no understanding of how the music is shaped. The ebb and flow must be there in the tempo as well. The basic tempo was the tempo of the heartbeat. And of course the heartbeat gets faster as the music gets more impassioned, or slower to express a more penitential feeling."
What sort of place does The Sixteen occupy in the continuum of English choral music? Christophers' response is surprising. "I sort of fight against the English choral tradition," he admits. "It is wonderful in its precision, its tuning, attention to detail. But one thing I cannot stand is overenunciating consonants. All the cathedral choirs do it. I have heard the word 'Egypt' pronounced with four syllables. I really have this bee in my bonnet that we should sing the way we speak. The essential thing, the secret, is for a choir to learn where the music is headed.
"The great thing about singing is the freedom it gives you. Too many musicians look for precision and accuracy first, and the music ends up taking second place. That is wrong to me, although I am very much in the minority. We inject a big amount of emotion into whatever we do. When the ensemble breathes together, feels together, and engages with the music and with one another, the problems of tuning and ensemble mostly disappear. And I think, in The Sixteen, we have proved this approach to be right."
Marcia Young is a New York-based music journalist and for the classical channels of Sirius Satellite Radio.