Thursday, September 28, 2006

Peter Phillips on How To Conduct and Sing Polyphony

I'm very please to draw your attention to the online publication of a new article by Peter Phillips (Tallis Scholars) that appears in the new issue of Sacred Music. Its title is: The Cult of the Conductor. Provocative doesn't quite describe it. He takes on the most of the common assumptions made about choral music and says that they do not apply to polyphony.

Here is a sample:

Many of the assumptions which underlie so much traditional music-making will not do for polyphony. The participating voices may be trained these days—if they are to survive the schedules the Tallis Scholars undertake they have to know how their voices work—but not in the operatic tradition of the individual above everything. Polyphony is a cooperative effort for everyone involved, and the first responsibility of the singer is to learn to blend with whoever else may be on the same line: this is not a place for the hero mentality....

Obviously this means singing in tune. Once a good blend between all the voices has been achieved, the contributors to each line will need to learn how to listen to the other lines, which should be done in a spirit of respect. The role of the conductor is to act as a kind of aesthetic umpire. His usefulness resides in the fact that he is the only person who can hear the whole texture at once: a singer in the line will not be able to do this nearly so well. The conductor's first responsibility in rehearsal is not to impose his "interpretation" of the chosen music on a body of people who have not yet been taught how to shape their sound, but to work on the basics of that sound and so create the conditions in which the final performance will be a living event. This way every performance of that piece by that group of people can be different.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: