Peter Phillips bids farewell to his music column after 33 years

‘I still stand amazed at the power of the written word. People will tolerate almost anything but being on the wrong side of a published opinion’

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

This, my 479th, is to be my last contribution as a regular columnist to The Spectator. I have written here for 33 years and 4 months, a way of life really, and one I have greatly enjoyed. I thank Auberon Waugh in absentia for suggesting me to Alexander Chancellor in the first place; and Charles Moore for keeping me on in the early years, once we were up and running. I also thank three quite exceptional arts editors: Gina Lewis, Jenny Naipaul and the doyenne of these pages, Liz Anderson.

Things have moved on from my habitual think pieces, outraged rants, ad hominem demolition of palpable idiots written in the back of aeroplanes. Perhaps if I had shot less often from the hip I would have been saved some of my more unfortunate calls to order, like the occasion I was summoned to Buckingham Palace for a dressing-down, resulting in the imposition of the Official Secrets Act. It was fun, though, in retrospect. I still stand amazed at the power of the written word. People will tolerate almost anything but being on the wrong side of a published opinion.

My first column was dated 8 January 1983. I wrote it under the pseudonym A.S. Henry, a camouflage I kept up for six months. Before me, an irregular music column had been written by Anthony Burgess from his mobile home in southern France. The main problem with this arrangement had been the difficulty of conveying black vinyl LPs to him for review. Something more reliable was needed, and until 1989 I was asked to write fortnightly, alternating with Rodney Milnes on opera. That was the year I also wrote a cricket column, soon abandoned for similar reasons to those I have just outlined — it is hard to keep abreast of games that take five days from the back of an aeroplane. Neville Cardus, my model, had done rather better.

Filing copy before the advent of email was an inexact science. Of course one could risk putting the piece in the post, but that meant being ahead of oneself time-wise. The surest method was to type it out (double spaced) and push it through the letter-box of 56 Doughty Street. We rarely used fax for some reason, but I did once, in 1985, send in an article by telex. I was working with the Dutch Chamber Choir in Amsterdam, where the deadline had caught me on the hop. Telex was a system that punched letters into a thin strip of white tape, which fed into a machine, then telegraphed the letters to a dedicated machine at the other end. The problem was that there was no way of correcting a typing error, and an 800-word article yielded countless yards of tape which, on this occasion, went down the stairs and into the premises of a neighbouring business. Also the tape could break at any time. The article took hours to convey — dictating it over the telephone was deemed to be too expensive.

It is no good being doctrinaire in pages like these. From the beginning I followed Auberon Waugh’s advice and wrote as if I were making an after-dinner speech. I didn’t think that it is acceptable to use the column to advertise myself or the Tallis Scholars, though sometimes I couldn’t keep us out of it, as when we were caught at Heathrow on the day bombs were found on commercial flights and it took us seven hours to check in, with no possessions allowed in the cabin at all. Or the day I arrived on the stage of the Albert Hall to find that my music stand had been cleared away and locked up, with the live broadcast starting immediately. I thought these things fair game. Otherwise I tried to do what it said on the label, and spectate.

But I will finish with a statement. Like any priest I have a mission in life, which I will pursue relentlessly anywhere for any (or no) money. This is to encourage interest in renaissance polyphony. I agree with J.M. Whistler that art is for art’s sake, that beauty (not morals or messages) should be the primary goal and meaning of a work of art. It is my experience that the moment people start looking for hidden meanings and relevancies, convenient to their own agendas, they are in danger of colonising the work in question, inevitably to its detriment. It’s as if beauty in itself is too simple, too naked, and therefore frightening. This is very much the case with polyphony. I’m also with Abbot Suger, who believed that we can only come to understand absolute beauty, which is God, through the effect of precious and beautiful things on our senses. Get your ego out of the way, and let the beauty speak for itself.

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Peter Phillips is founder and director of the Tallis Scholars.

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  • Felipe Ordoñez de Rivera

    Mr Phillips’ column is nicely packed with reminiscence, and I have been reading his contribution for many years. But why doesn’t he say WHY this is his last appearance in The Spectator? And who will replace him as resident music commentator?

  • Bob

    More than 33 years ago I chanced to be at a Tallis Scholars concert at St John’s Smith Square. They performed the now famous and then unknown “Spem in alium”. I think the program notes mentioned something about no one knowing what concert pitch was when it was written and that the Peter Phillips performance would have the sopranos singing higher than usual. Whether that was true or not or whether being fortunately seated in the centre of church below the dome made a difference I will never know but for certain it was a performance that was magic and I have remembered ever since. My eyes were on the 40 choristers but the sound arrived from a spot somewhere over my head. The recorded performances are very enjoyable but never compare with that moment of absolute beauty.
    I hope Mr Phillips has resigned from the Spectator with a golden handshake so he can bring his choir to Auckland.

  • jwripple

    Very sorry to see Peter Phillips go, and it would be helpful to know the reason. But what a magnificent last paragraph to end with. I owe most of my experience of beauty to polyphony, and Peter Phillips introduced me to it. For that, and for the columns, my thanks.

    • MWnyc

      Well, he wrote, “Things have moved on from my habitual think pieces, outraged rants, ad hominem demolition of palpable idiots written in the back of aeroplanes.”

      I take that to mean he was not asked to stay on.

      • jwripple

        Too subtle for me.