How the sixteen choir are reviving the Tudor age


proms - Credit: Archant

The Sixteen choir had its roots in classic repertory but its programme is now a ‘mixed bag’ with modern contributions

For too long, the BBC seemed to think music documentaries had no place on television unless they were populist, packaged with triteness and came with a quasi-hip presenter more interested in himself than in what he was there to present. But then, just as it looked as though the ambitions of even BBC4 would never extend beyond Dusty Springfield reminiscence nights, came Sacred Music, a series to restore your fading faith that anyone in TV cared about such things or had the clout to get them scheduled. And the stars of Sacred Music were The Sixteen: one of the world’s truly great professional choirs who, with their founding director Harry Christophers, are the big attraction at St Jude’s this year.

If you’ve never heard them, you must lead a sheltered life (and certainly never listen to Classic FM where they’re effectively in long-term residence), because their profile could scarcely be higher. And if you’ve never seen them, you might be slightly baffled when you do a headcount – because the chances of there being 16 people on the platform isn’t great: the number changes with the repertory.

So why the name? It’s more or less an accident of history that dates back to 1977 when the choir began – as an ad hoc ensemble pulled together for a single Oxford concert. Harry Christophers was newly graduated, after three years as a Magdalen choral scholar, and the concert was a goodbye-to-all-that involving friends from college. Since they ended up with 16 singers and gave a programme of 16th century English music from the Tudor court, the number turned into the name – just for the one night. Nobody imagined there would be another.

Leaving Oxford, Christophers immediately joined the small-scale opera company English Music Theatre, a reincarnation of Britten’s English Opera Group. And that would have been that, but for an interesting development which happened to be turning western music-making upside down. It was called period performance. Through the 1960s/’70s a new kind of musician – part-scholar, part-player, part-entrepreneur – had been opening up a world of so-called “early” music and attempting to perform it as it might originally have been done, without the hindsight of four centuries of later practice. New ensembles playing on “old” instruments sprang up to promote this rediscovered world. And alongside them sprang up new, elite, small-scale professional choirs, usually named in honour of long-dead composers.

Bad experience

Peter Phillips established the Tallis Scholars; Andrew Parrott the Tavener Choir; Roger Norrington the Schutz Choir and John Eliot Gardiner the Monteverdi – all of them fed by a small, circulating band of Oxbridge voices who gave an incestuous air to the whole business. Christophers himself was a founding member of the Tallis and might have joined the Monteverdi as well but for a bad experience that endorses Gardiner’s reputation for abrasiveness. “The Monteverdi were up and running, well established,” Christophers recalls, “so I went along to audition. And it was pure sadism. What I was asked to do was impossible. Gardiner was unbelievably rude. So I walked out and our paths didn’t cross again – which I suppose is interesting given that we both inhabited a rather small world. I have loads of his recordings, and I think he’s a phenomenal musician. But as a human being…well, his way of doing things wasn’t mine.”

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Going his own way, Christophers sensed the mood of the moment and decided to revive The Sixteen as a long-term venture, maintaining the Tudor polyphony of that first concert as its special interest. Why?

“Because I’d got to know all these composers – Tallis, Tomkins, Tavener – at Oxford and I’d grown to love them. And not many other choirs were doing them in concert at the time, so they were a new sound: a special sound with earthier textures than you hear in mainland European music of their period, and stylistic peculiarities that I suppose you could call maverick. In the nicest way’.

The Sixteen’s expertise in Tudor repertory developed through 10 years of concerts and recordings to the high-point of five magisterial and award-winning discs of music from the Eton Choirbook: a collection of liturgical settings that survived the ravages of the Reformation.

Spread their wings

Not until The Sixteen came along did this sublime collection find its way back into regular performance. And though there won’t be Eton Choirbook music on the programme at St Jude’s, there will be other marvels from the Tudor period by the likes of Tallis, Byrd and Gibbons. Masters whose creative genius speaks as powerfully to us now as it did then.

That said, The Sixteen’s specialities have long since spread beyond those Tudor masters to the 20th century and beyond. So for St Jude’s, they’ve added some landmarks of the modern-classic repertoire by Michael Tippett (negro spirituals from his oratorio Child of Our Time) and Britten (choral dances from his coronation opera, Gloriana).

It’s what Christophers calls his “mixed bag” programme: “old and new music linked together by a connecting thread – which in this case is that Britten’s opera is about Elizabethan England, the era of composers like Tallis. And Tallis was an important figure for Tippett.

“I’ve also put in some motets by James MacMillan because I think he’s the finest of contemporary choral composers and, whenever we do these pieces, they’re the ones the audience tends to come out of the concert discussing. MacMillan has a gift for using simple ideas in a striking way that’s fresh and memorable. So he’s become a Sixteen favourite.”

As it happens, St Jude’s is a Sixteen favourite too, because it was the choir’s chief venue for recordings through the 1980s/’90s. “They were happy times,” remembers Christophers adding: “It will be interesting to be back because, despite all those recordings, we’ve never actually given a public concert there’.