A Choral Odyssey is the latest project by crack choral ensemble The Sixteen and their founder and conductor Harry Christophers. Over the course of five online programs, the outstanding British actor Sir Simon Russell Beale explores music and the architecture that inspired it through performances from Hatfield House and Magdalen College, Oxford to Shakespeare’s Globe. In a series of conversations, Russell Beale and Christophers discuss the socio-religious-political themes surrounding each composition. Christophers then offers insights and examples before performances of the complete works. The series will culminate with a livestream of The Sixteen’s Christmas at Cadogan concert on 23 December. Limelight caught up with the conductor ahead of the first episode airing on 18 November.

Harry Christophers. Photograph © Firedog

What are the most obvious ways that architecture has inspired composers over the centuries? And does it ever work the other way around?

Architecture has been the inspiration for music ever since churches and cathedrals began being built. Right from the early 12th century when Leonin and Perotin were composing organum for Notre Dame in Paris, music has been informed by architecture. From that point on the architects and builders had music in mind when constructing the great Naves and Quires just as the composers had the building in mind when writing their music. I’ll never forget performing organum in St Denis in Paris and hearing the sound of an open fifth resounding through the whole length of the building without any distortion – total purity! The arches of the phrases in renaissance music echo the arches of the cathedrals and that principle continued for many years.

In the secular sphere, how did theatrical design influence both the kinds of music written for the stage and the ways in which it was performed?

The proscenium arch of the theatre in many ways took over the same principles as the arches in cathedrals. But, of course, what we have in theatres, with the creation of the orchestra pit, is the ability to hear the libretto clearly. Where it is possible, it is always incredibly informative to look at the original plan of the theatre where operas were first conceived (Handel in London, Mozart in Vienna, Wagner in Bayreuth et al.).

What are the most obvious ways that politics impacted on the music performed in both sacred and secular spaces?

In 16th-century England, the reformation caused untold turmoil. Catholics were persecuted under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and Protestants likewise under Mary. For composers, they either towed the line like Thomas Tallis or followed their beliefs like William Byrd who, as a result, was in constant fear of fines, imprisonment or – worse still – his life. To show sympathy with fellow Catholics, there are a number of works by Byrd, which include codes to his religious colleagues. Move on to the modern day, Arvo Pärt found refuge from political and religious adversity in his sacred works, in particular. Although none of them are specifically written for the liturgy, the sentiments and the contemplative nature of his “tintinnabulation” style show that he wants his message heard clearly. Today we find so many composers writing music to reflect and meditate by, thus allowing us to bridge the serious and worrying gaps in our society caused by lack of diversity, or the political, cultural and religious divide.

What are your fondest memories of performing in the venues in your Choral Odyssey? 

Every venue has been special in its own way. Magdalen, Oxford, my alma mater was just glorious. The music by Richard Davy and John Sheppard which we sang there would have been heard there for the first time in the 15th and 16th centuries respectively. A classic case of the music fitting the building like a glove. Medieval carols in the original 14th-century Great Hall of Penshurst Place in Kent were special. A central log fire in this cavernous, freezing cold hall and one just soaked up centuries of banquets and festivities. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London’s Globe Theatre was simply idyllic. The playhouse was constructed only this century from an architect’s design for a Jacobean Theatre which was discovered in an Oxford college. It is so compact, lit by candles and magically atmospheric. Purcell would have loved it.

Hatfield House is steeped in history – the home of the Cecil family since 1611. Queen Elizabeth I learnt she was to be Queen while under house arrest there. These were turbulent times religiously and to perform music by William Bird and Arvo Pärt who both suffered political and religious turmoil was so apt. And one of the finds for us all was the small catholic church of the Assumption close to London’s Soho district. Singing Guerrero’s sumptuous music from the 16th century in front of mosaics to the Virgin Mary from more recent times felt such a perfect match of art and music.

When you program a concert, how important is the building in your choice of repertoire? And have you ever found a building changing the way you expected the music to be heard, either for good or ill?

We perform our programs in all sorts of venues, from cathedrals to concert halls, both large and small so one is constantly adapting to the sound. For renaissance music there are some cathedrals in England which just fit the music like a glove (Canterbury, York and Tewkesbury for example – all incredible). In my opinion you should never fight the building. If it is too resonant then concentrate on great waves of sound. Where possible, I try and choose a program to suit; if it’s too dry then be even more conscious of allowing the more rhythmic phrases to dance off the stonework but at the same time exaggerating the arches of the phrases.

I recall performing music from the Eton Choirbook in Eton Chapel; we had to perform in a particular area – the sound was so dry, and it was really hard work. However, last year we performed there again and stood in the altar area and it was magnificent. We found the magic spot! For many years we have done concerts annually in Durham Cathedral – each year we persuade the vergers there to move us a little closer to the audience so that none of us is singing underneath the tower. We have finally succeeded and the sound is much better not only for the audience but for us – we can hear each other for once.

Can you suggest an example of a modern composer being inspired by a particular building?

The amazing Arvo Pärt. Arvo was commissioned by the Tate Modern in London to write a work which was to be performed in the Turbine Hall there. This was a number of years ago just after the Tate Modern had opened. There was a constant hum in there on a B Flat. Arvo being Arvo wrote his whole piece based around the B Flat hum – legend! By the way that hum no longer exists.

A Choral Odyssey with The Sixteen, Harry Christophers and Simon Russell Beale streams online 18 November 2020 – 31 January 2021. View here.

Read our new magazine online