I am considering a third book. This would take the form of a series of essays, in the nature of jottings, mopping up some of the untied ends which are loose in my head. Here is a possible list of topics:
- The disconcerting effects of finding that two masterpieces one loved are not what we were told they were. This refers to the reattributing of two eight-voice motets from two composers we knew and respected (Clemens non Papa and Cristobal de Morales) to someone nobody had ever heard of, Thomas Crecquillon. As the years pass I find this has caused more and more unease, despite the fact that the reattribution is almost certainly correct.
- Commentary on the ‘think-piece’ I did for the BBC about crossover, and my preference for concert-halls over churches, with reference to the ensuing discussion in which I distinguished between the sound and the visuals in the two types of venue. The piece is quoted below, without the discussion.
- An abstract of the inter-disciplinary argument in renaissance painting and music, based in the development of perspective. This will of necessity be technical. Such a chapter will put an end to the promise I made years ago, routinely restated in my biography, that I am working on a book about renaissance culture. Here will be the essence of what I was thinking of years ago.
- A chapter on to what extent polyphony, and especially that of Palestrina, can properly be thought of as being abstract.
- A chapter on what I hold to be bad polyphony.
- A commentary on John Ruskin’s feeling that the so-called revival of learning in fifteenth-century Italy marked the beginning of a negative development in Western culture, in which aristocratic and elitist values established themselves thoughout art and learning. Such a radically untrendy view deserves analysis, not least in its application to music. Reference to its antithesis – the more populist counterreformation culture of the baroque – would be good.
As a matter of interest I was recently asked by BBC Radio to write a ‘think-piece’ based on the Epilogue of What We Really Do. I will leave you to read the original, but this is how I adapted it for radio broadcast. I wanted to quote it here because it contains some of my most recent thoughts on what we do in fact do, and why, thoughts which may not make comfortable reading to certain kinds of idealist:
Crossover has become a tired old word, almost an insult. Too much money has been made out of dumbing down music that originally was something of quality for anyone to have much respect for the processes involved. And once a piece has been thus dumbed, what do we think of it then? Can we ever hear Bach’s Air on a G string or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – pieces mercilessly crossed over to TV advertising – again completely straight, as they were in their time of innocence? Crossover in whatever form – beat tracks, adding tacky lyrics to famous melodies, acoustically enhanced effects – so often seems to be no more than a way of avoiding difficult decisions about training and practice in order to make a quick buck.
But perhaps the word crossover still has a meaning which is not all bad: it implies that by some process of re-presentation, not necessarily a cheapening one, a piece of music can be made to appeal to people who would not normally find it interesting, or who would not hear about it at all. Every artist and every promoter dreams of finding new audiences for what they have been doing for years, often with the thought that something very simple about the packaging is eluding them. Here lies the opportunity and the danger. The hope is reasonable; the methods resorted to may destroy something fragile.
Something of this makes me feel that the Tallis Scholars and their performances of renaissance sacred polyphony may be called crossover. After all, we have taken music which was expressly conceived for church services and turned it into something unapologetically secular. We have taken music which was written to form one element in a complex act of worship, part of a highly stylised ceremony of significant words, gestures, smells, icons, costumes and music, deracinated it and put it up in lights by itself for our pleasure and financial gain. Everything has been changed: the words are put into the background; the gestures, smells and icons are banished altogether; the cassock and surplice of the choirman has been replaced, for our men at least – our women are beyond the original pale – with posh Victorian dinner wear; the church is often replaced with a concert hall for access to which people must pay. How can this be justified, and how can the music survive the upheaval?
All along my intention was to put the spotlight squarely on the music, with no distractions. I always believed that the best polyphony was good enough to withstand this kind of scrutiny; indeed I believed it was as good as any of the later concert repertoires which have always been paid the compliment of being listened to just for themselves, in silence. I objected to how bad so many church performances of sacred music have been, while suspecting that to have meaning polyphony does not necessarily need the context of a church service at all. For me the logical end-point to this argument was to present our music in as neutral a place as possible, where people can hear it to best advantage. Modern concert-halls may be the sonic equivalent of going to see a Bellini altarpiece in an art gallery, but I do not mind. In galleries one pays for the privilege of being able to see a great religious painting without difficulty. Everything is arranged so that one can enjoy it, interpret it, and then move on to another one hanging next to it. In such a space people from outside the Christian tradition can derive as much meaning as those from inside it, and though their conclusions may be different, they may be just as valid too. The same is true of sacred polyphony in concert halls, which we perform, like paintings in a gallery, one example after another.
Our crossover from sacred to secular and from church to concert hall, in my opinion has brought real benefits to the music, if not always to the performers. Not only can it now be heard without interruption from priests, but it can be heard in comfort. I am glad that our audiences can now listen to a votive antiphon by Tallis, which may last the length of a Haydn symphony, without freezing to death and while sitting on comfortable seats. Nor any more do all those present have to share the one lavatory on the premises with us the singers. And the sound can be much better in a concert hall than in a church. It is true that in both categories one finds acoustics which are really too dry for singers to be able to blossom in; but it is very rare to find a concert hall which is too reverberant. This can be the curse of so many church concerts. Many people still think that bathroom acoustics are the only ones for church music, the singing coming at them in a romantic wash from the far, far distance. They have heard too many backing tracks on Disney cartoons. Renaissance music is made up of tiny interlocking details, like the details in string quartet writing, which need to be heard in complete clarity. For this style of chamber music the best spaces are those which have been planned and built according to the most modern specifications, where the reverberation patterns can be controlled. The Birmingham Symphony Hall, the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Angel Place in Sydney, the Taipei Symphony Hall and many other state-of-the-art halls worldwide are my idea of perfection for what we do. Few churches can rival them.
The problem with this is less for the music as for us. To many people we are now neither fish nor fowl, no longer fitting into any of the available neat categories which enable the casual concert-goer to feel completely relaxed with us. Are we a choir or a vocal ensemble? Are we making chamber music like string quartets, and if we are accepted as secular chamber musicians, is it appropriate simply to put us alongside other chamber musicians in International Artists Series in the local Arts Centre, or do we need helping on stage a bit, with – dread concept – candles and even incense? (Never mind that incense gets in the singers’ throats and candles mean we can’t read our copies).
It is our fault, in a way, for crossing over. But it had to be done. There is little future in the church for polyphony, especially not in the Catholic communion, for which almost all the music we sing was written, where the vast majority of priests seem to want either guitars and unison folk-style singing or, if they do have a sense of tradition, plainchant. Left to them this great repertoire would die. Whatever may be the opposite of dumbing down, I feel our corner of crossover embodies it.