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Tallis Scholars travel composer’s sound worlds

The Tallis Scholars, December 8, 2009

The Georgia Straight

by Tony Montague

Josquin des Prez was a favourite composer of Martin Luther, and Peter Phillips is not surprised the leader of the Reformation loved Josquin’s works – even though many of the best were masses.

“Luther was a very sensitive musician,” says Phillips, founder and leader of the Tallis Scholars, reached at his home in Islington, London. “He once said he didn’t see why the devil ­ referring to the Catholic Church ­ should have all the best tunes, and apparently he sang very well himself. It was the dogma he didn’t like about the Church. So I think he would have been enormously impressed by Josquin – as everyone else was.”

Little is known about Josquin’s life; indeed there’s some dispute whether he was French or Flemish. Whatever his origins, he was born around 1450, died in 1521, and is regarded as the greatest musician of his time. Josquin wrote both sacred and secular music in all of the significant vocal forms of the age, including masses, motets, chansons, and frottole (predecessors of madrigals).

At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts next Tuesday (December 8), the Scholars will open their program of early sacred music with a performance of Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine, his most popular mass in the 16th century. “It’s based on plainchant,” says Phillips. “Quite a few masses of that period were based on chants and are known as paraphrase masses.”

The Tallis Scholars’ most recent album is Missa Malheur me bat & Missa Fortunata desperata, which features two ofJosquin’s more secu­lar compositions. “We’re hoping to record all 16 of his masses,” says Phillips. “Eight discs are involved, and we’re now halfway through. The reason I want to do this project is that his masses are as different from each other, and as significant, as Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies. Josquin seemed to pour all his genius into this particular format, and he’s very inventive. I like to explain the differences and hope to write a book about them. Each mass is a sound world of its own. The way he constructed it and used the material is highly original.”

The Scholars’ first Vancouver concert in four years also comprises John Nesbett’s Magnificat, Thomas Tallis’s Tunes From Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, and William Byrd’s Ye sacred muses, Tribulationes civitatum, and Vigilate. A full evening of early sacred music isn’t considered an unusual program anymore, but according to Phillips, when he founded the group in 1973, it was deemed not only a radical idea but “boring”.

“It was thought the public wouldn’t come, and indeed they didn’t,” he explains. “But we persevered. Over the years it’s become a more accepted form of the mainstream for concert series, with string quartets and piano recitals, and there’s been a worldwide increase of interest in the repertoire. We’ve played in places such as Morocco, Israel, Zambia, Mexico, Norway, and China, and we’re just back from our 13th tour of Japan. People these days have no problem sitting for two hours listening to nothing but great Renaissance sacred music.”

Thu Dec 3, 2009