IF THE NATIONAL Geographic specials on PBS are to be believed, people round the world still burst into song when given the slightest excuse to do so. Not here. Especially not here in Seattle. Singing is something to be done at strictly scheduled times in strictly designated venues—choir loft, rock club, recording studio, concert hall. Those who take it into their head to vocalize extempore risk apprehension by the Sidran Patrol.
A capella music of the
St. Mark's Cathedral, September 19
Last Saturday offered a blissful exception. Peter Phillips, one of the most gifted interpreters of "early music" on the planet, was in town for a week to rehearse for a concert with the band of local vocal virtuosi called the Tudor Choir. And through Phillips' generosity (and that of the Choir's founder-director Doug Fullington) those of us usually forced to sit in admiring, envious silence got a share of the experience, as Phillips gave up the morning of the concert day to lead some 70 eager walk-in vocalists in a leisurely read-through of some of the greatest music ever composed for unaccompanied voices.
You almost never hear this music on the radio; the human voice, particularly raised to the glory of God, is considered unsuitable accompaniment for the rigors of drive-time or boutique shopping. You rarely even hear it in the concert hall, for more respectable reasons. Virtually all the enormous body of music for multiple voices written before 1700 was composed for practical use, to perform a specific function within a church service.
Not that it's bland or inexpressive; in its more elaborate forms, it was intended to knock the congregation's emotional socks off, rouse feelings of terror and joy and transcendence. But it remains essentially cool, formal, impersonal—the farthest thing imaginable from "concert music" as it came to be after 1700: ever more highly colored and grabby and demonstrative.
There is just so much surface display to be achieved within the timbral palette and three-and-a-half octave range of human voices, and just so much surface drama to be extracted from the words of the Latin Mass and the Psalms. There's a limit to the technical demands a composer could reasonably make of a choir that might have to sing multiple services a day seven days a week, just so much elaboration he could risk before the priest began complaining that the music was distracting from the holy message it was meant to serve. The solution, for the greatest composers—for Des Prez, Palestrina, Tallis—was to hide their richest discoveries and inspirations deep inside the music, where they're only to be found by close attention and repeated immersion.
On its pellucid surface, an anthem-like Tallis' "If ye love me," written for the Protestant Tudor court in the 1550s, seems not much more than a graceful tapestry, a musical background for the serious liturgical business going on round the altar. It's "easy": just four singing parts, less than two minutes long. Easy enough that Phillips chose it to begin his reading session, saying (only half jokingly) to the unknowns hunkered in front of him that "if we can't get through this, we're in trouble."
We got through it all right, even staying in tune. More confident, we got through it a couple more times. Each time, with only the gentlest coaching from Phillips, the composer's genius shone forth more radiantly: in the way each voice's line is propelled onward by the rise and fall of the one beneath, the way the music gathers energy as the four diverge in pitch and pace, achieving a higher level of intensity as they come once more into coincidence. When the last note is held and released and slowly dies away in a reverberant haze, there's a realization that our breath made this moment happen.
We aren't always as lucky with the half-dozen other pieces we essay, though we at least avoid outright disaster. The level of accomplishment isn't the point; the experience of discovery is. That same evening, a lot of us amateurs return to St. Mark's to hear the Tudor Choir under Phillips, performing from the same repertory. There is, to put it delicately, no comparison. But instead of being ashamed of our feeble efforts earlier, the experience of the real thing is exalting. Now we may be outside the fence, looking in; but for a few hours this morning, we were in there ourselves, on the hallowed ground where angelic business is done.