Tallis kept his head down so that he could keep it on. At a time of monarchical savagery he survived in the courts of four Tudors. It's probably fair to say that he didn’t draw attention to himself in any way other than through his music, startling enough, by any standard. We’ve no idea what kind of a person he was except that his epitaph describes a ‘patient quiet type, O happy man’.
I’ve moved amongst church musicians in my time and know a bit about what gets their metronomes going. I have to say that patient and quiet is not always their modus operandi. They may be quiet in the house and even patient with small children and dogs but I’ve known ‘em take bits out of slackers, clergy and anyone else getting in the way of the muse. I worked alongside one of the great cathedral organists and, while charming personally, he had a great line in asperity. Picture me in a beautiful chapter house, togged up in a ridiculously long cope, waiting as one of eight to escort the Bishop down the aisle (imagine a middle-aged mediaeval security detachment). All manner of processional mechanics having already set off, we wait behind the choir, professional musicians themselves, aged 8 to 60. Himself sets off suddenly at a moderate gallop, literally wrong-footing the smaller choristers in the front rank to whom he menacingly stage whispers over a dissatisfied shoulder. ‘Oh do come on. And don’t start that ridiculous coughing’. Was Tallis like that?
Conductors, like stage directors, have a particular relationship with their people. They are necessarily direct, even brusque and can get away with stuff that might end in flouncing or a punch-up in ordinary conversation – yet the outcome is usually wonderfully united. How does it work? Honesty and collaboration.
Which, fancy that, are the Tallis 50 themes for this half term. ‘Honest’ is one of our characteristics so we expect everyone in our community to tell the truth, reliably and habitually, so we don’t waste time on falsehoods or chasing wild geese (attractive as that sounds on a gloomy London afternoon). We let our no be no and our yes be yes. We shouldn’t need nudging, nagging or reminding, it is an habitual virtue.
Likewise ‘collaborative’, one of our habits. We cooperate appropriately (obviously not under exam conditions), give and receive feedback and share the product that we make, whatever it is. We share, discuss, debate, critique, consult, publish and explain. We work together: get it, got it, give it.
Honest and collaborative are buzzwords of the zeitgeist, but so hard to do, so hard to keep in tandem. The big issues confronting humanity – injustice and climate emergency – are maddening and terrifying in equal parts. It’s no wonder that so many discussions and debates are carries out in isolation and anger. People demanding honesty have had enough of lies. People yearning for collaboration have had enough of exclusion. Debate carried on in the ether seems to prioritise falsity and division as individuals shout their way to notoriety – yet the www is designed for collaboration, designed for sharing.
We’re dealing with some big issues in schools today. We know enough to know that we get and have got so much wrong. Wickedly, dehumanisingly wrong, planet-endangeringly wrong. But the worst of us, who need to sort it out, behave like dictators rather than directors, commandants rather than conductors. Grandstanding leadership disguises dishonesty and political sound-biting prevents shared endeavour. That affects the way young people learn to argue, when exclusivity and purity can close gateways to genuine just progress and where adult expectations discard the desperate adolescent need to explore and experiment before they decide, before they take on the mantle of adult citizenship.
Even if we don’t know anything else, we know that Tallis endured, and because he did, his music did. The new world our young people need is a shared endeavour. We need to be honest – like the conductor – and collaborative - like the conductor. We need high expectations, but we need to trouble ourselves to collaborate to build a better world.
You couldn’t sing the 32 parts of Spem in alium on your own and you couldn’t get it sung right without honesty about what needs to be done. Musicians do it all the time, and we can learn from that.
I’ve written this blog alone on yet another train but honestly, couldn’t it have been better if I’d done it collaboratively?