Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, UK choir The Sixteen is internationally renowned for its peerless interpretation of Renaissance, Baroque and modern choral music. Founded by conductor Harry Christophers CBE, The Sixteen has won many awards including a Gramophone Award for Early Music and the Ensemble category at the prestigious 2018 Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards, and recently performed at the request of the Pope in the Sistine Chapel.

The Sixteen. Photograph © Simon Jay Price

The Sixteen is currently in Australia to perform one of its most popular programs, An Immortal Legacy, which spans over 500 years of British choral music, from 16th century composers Tallis and Byrd to Britten, Tippett and James MacMillan. Harry Christophers spoke to Limelight about the choir and the concert.

 An Immortal Legacy spans music some 500 years of British choral music – what are some of the threads that run through the program?

The main thread is the effect that Tudor music had on the two great English composers from the 20thcentury, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. Tippett adored the music of Thomas Tallis. With his legendary choir at Morley College in London he had a penchant for early music, particularly that of the English renaissance, and new music with precious little from the intervening years! Britten, likewise, was greatly influenced by Elizabethan England. His opera Gloriana, which depicts the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was composed in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Thus Britten’s Choral Dances are a perfect complement to the madrigals by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Morley. Can there be any better madrigalian gem than Gibbons’ The Silver Swan? I love the idea of putting what I call our “grass roots” repertoire, that of the English renaissance alongside music of our time. I was introduced to the music of both Tallis and Tippett while a choral scholar at New College, Oxford. We would perform some of Tippett’s Spirituals as anthems at evensong but it was Tallis’ O nata lux that was to have a profound effect on me. This twenty bar motet is, without doubt, another gem and was a gateway into so much of his wonderful music.

What were the most significant shifts or changes in British choral music over that time, and how are they reflected in this program?

Interestingly enough it’s the similarities that are interesting rather than the shifts. Of course, choirs have changed a lot; in Tudor England they would have been all male with boys voices on the top line. The Sixteen has of course glorious sopranos on that top line. But the trend through the last two centuries to hark back to renaissance times is staggering. I think composers today are fascinated by that sound world and also by the complex music that was being written.

How have social, religious and political changes influenced the various choral traditions?

Sixteenth century England was rife with religious conflict; Catholics attempting to maintain their faith against a monarchy which insisted on Anglicanism. The likes of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, especially, lived in constant fear of their life. Today the challenges are different; we live in a multi-faith society where Queen Elizabeth II has constantly taken tangible steps to respect and recognise these various faiths and promote tolerance and understanding. James MacMillan is a Scottish Catholic who is a firm believer in his faith; his music conveys that just as Byrd’s does. Of course in Tudor England the principal jobs for musicians were for court or church, more often than not going hand in hand. Today composers have an incredible freedom to express themselves as they wish.

How does the more recent music, by composers like Britten and MacMillan speak to or interact with the earlier works?

 Just wait and see! It works amazingly well but actually it’s not that surprising. As I have said above both Tippett and Britten adored the earlier English repertoire and found their own modern voice to reflect that love. James MacMillan stands head and shoulders above any other living composer writing sacred music. Like Byrd and Tallis he knows his scriptures through and through and like his predecessors finds a deeply personal voice to convey his faith. But the really interesting thing about all this music be it sacred or secular is that it speaks to everyone. All faiths and cultures find their inner self through this astounding music.

How does the choir have to adapt technically and musically to change between the different styles?

The Sixteen are so adept in moving from one era to another. I think that has a lot to do with doing so much renaissance and baroque music that we move through the styles just as the composers adapted over the centuries. But what is important is that we as a group don’t just make a lovely sound; we must get to the heart of whatever music we are singing, be it sacred or secular, old or new. And that always comes to down to conveying the words whether through the simplicity of Tallis’ Parker Hymn Tunes or Tippett’s Spirituals.

The Sixteen. Photograph supplied

What are the pleasures of this music for the choir?

 I think the choir just love the variety. They adore singing the Tallis sequences and Byrd’s ebullient Laudibus in sanctis. But I think all of them would say that they particularly love MacMillan’s music. We have had such a long association with James; it’s almost 20 years since we first commissioned a work from him and the choir feel so at home with his music, both technically and emotionally.

The choir has performed An Immortal Legacy around the world for over a decade, and recorded it in 2013, what do you think audiences respond to in this music?

Again I think it is the variety. For those who know little about choral music then this is a marvellous program to introduce them to this world. For those who are familiar with the repertoire then they witness well known repertoire given stylish and totally committed performances alongside some unfamiliar repertoire which we find constantly excites the listener.

How do you keep it fresh as performers?

Oh, the choir know never to take me for granted. We will have a relatively small amount of rehearsal in each venue so that we preserve inspiration and energy for the concert. We really do feel the audience’s presence and constantly react to that. We love singing together as a group but what we love best is communicating to our public.

For you what are the particular highlights or gems in this program?

Oh I love it all! But if you were to really push me then Tallis’s O sacrum convivium, (it’s so prayerful and rich in colour) and MacMillan’s Mitte manum tuam (I love watching the basses having to have such control and it’s good to see them kept on their toes!!)

The Sixteen performs at City Recital Hall, Sydney on March 9, Melbourne Recital Centre on March 12, and at QPAC, Brisbane on March 14

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Harry Christophers has had to withdraw from the Australian tour. The performances will be conducted by Eamonn Dougan, Associate Conductor of The Sixteen