Thursday, 3 July 2008

The honorary gentleman

The latest volume in our Music in Britain 1600-1900 series is Suzanne Cole's study of Thomas Tallis in the 19th century. Here the author explains how she came to her subject:

The origins of my book, Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England, can be traced back to my student years at Melbourne University in the early 1980s. Although I was actually enrolled in a science degree, I also took organ lessons with Revd. Paul Harvie, an eccentric, infuriating, but inspiring Anglo-Catholic priest of the very ‘highest’ kind. After a couple of years, in the absence of suitable male candidates, Paul made me his assistant organist at the parish of Christ Church, Brunswick, and began, somewhat grudgingly (he was not known for his enlightened views on women), to initiate me into the mysteries of what he referred to on recruiting flyers for choir boys as the ‘900 year tradition’. There is much that could be criticised about Paul’s methods – I was occasionally allowed to sing with the choir, but never to robe or process, and was always referred to as an ‘honorary gentlemen’, and he was famous for flying into a rage if foolish parents allowed their child to make any noise in church. But his quixotic commitment to maintaining the English Cathedral tradition in a parish church in a working-class suburb of Melbourne was both inspiring and intriguing.

So my book is – albeit indirectly – an attempt to explore this tradition, and perhaps more importantly the romanticised myths that surround it. But it also explores the essential differences between the culture of church music and what is now the dominant secular culture of the concert hall, and the historical transition between the two. By taking a single composer and following attitudes towards him and his music over an extended period of time, I have, I hope, been able to show how attitudes have changed, how myths have developed and shifted, and how the music was made to serve the cultural and religious agendas of the day.

So why Tallis? The obvious reason is that for several centuries Tallis was the Father of English Church Music. I had thought that this definition had ceased to be relevant sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, but I recently stumbled across it on the official website of the TV series The Tudors, so the tradition lingers on. (I am at a loss though as to what this astonishingly imaginative depiction of Tallis and his poor wife Joan tells us about the reception of early music!).

And why Victorian England? Because, pace Fr Paul, most of the traditions that he was celebrating and preserving, rather than dating back 900 years, don’t extend back much further than the early to mid-nineteenth century. And of course, once I started researching I found that these traditions weren’t quite what I expected anyway.

The research for this book, which took place in intensive bursts during trips to the UK (there’s nothing like a 26-hour flight to focus the mind!), was a delight: the excitement of finding a review of a performance after hours, or even days, of trawling through newspapers; the privilege of holding the early seventeenth-century manuscript of Spem in alium. But the moment of highest excitement was without doubt finding the handbill for the 1835 Anniversary Festival of the Madrigal Society, which proved that, contrary to popular belief, Spem had not been performed that year. Someone, and I’m afraid I can’t remember who, suggested that I contact Oliver Davies, as the portraits and programs collection at the Royal College of Music might have some useful material. So in I went. Oliver, who was not a young man at the time, took me on an amazing journey through the bowels of the RCM – up stairs, round corners, down narrow corridors – all at break neck speed. If he’d abandoned me I doubt whether I would ever have found my way out again. Finally we ended up in what I remember, quite possibly incorrectly, as a tiny room high in a tower, piled from floor to ceiling with bundles of paper and boxes full of concert programs. I told him what I was interested in and he immediately dived into one of the many piles, pulled out a box and extracted a single piece of paper – the only nineteenth-century Madrigal Society program that they had. And by what I still consider to be some sort of miracle, it was the one that I needed!

I’m still not entirely sure why I have been so completely entranced by the ‘900 year tradition’, why I spent quite so many hours listening to Bernard Rose’s recording of Tomkins with the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, as an 18-year-old science student. But I hope that this book brings us some little way closer to an understanding of our collective relationship with the music of the early English church.

Suzanne Cole's book is available now. Those interested in the '900 year tradition', may be interested to look here.

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