Harry and Mary take on the world

Anna Picard on how 'The Sixteen' became 18 and beat the recession
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The Independent Culture

Whether it's because of the prospect of war or recession or both, the attitude in the classical music industry today is decidedly glum. The last decade has seen a sharp drop in both record production and live performances. So why is Harry Christophers, conductor and founder of The Sixteen, one of Britain's most versatile choirs, looking so relaxed? Because he's already had his recession. For him, 2001 is the continuation of a hard-won renaissance.

Twenty-four years after their foundation as a small group of singers specialising in Tudor church music, The Sixteen (who are, in fact, 18 in number) have weathered the storms of industry set-backs. When they started out in Oxford only two other groups – The Tallis Scholars and The Clerkes of Oxenford – were performing polyphony in concert. At the time of their financial crisis, they faced unprecedented competition.

But, Christophers tells me, this group has turned things around. Together with their orchestra, The Symphony of Harmony and Invention, they've toured America, Europe and Japan to ecstatic reviews. They've bought back their recording catalogue, established their own label, Coro, commissioned a new work from Scots composer James MacMillan, and, following a millennium tour of Britain that saw an audience of over 11,000 listening to their passionate account of pre-Reformation polyphony, they are about to start a second "choral pilgrimage": a 16 (of course) date tour based around the events of 1553, when Henry VIII's Roman Catholic heir, Mary Tudor, became Queen of England.

As if this weren't enough, they're also up for a Gramophone award. What's the secret? According to Christophers it's loyalty – proof of which can be seen in the choir's steady personnel – and just a touch of control-freakery.

Undertaking a British tour of this magnitude could be seen as commercial suicide, but the success of last year's pilgrimage proved it was viable. "Let's face it, how often do British audiences get to hear their own groups?" he asks. "We had people following us from venue to venue." But Christophers is taking no chances. The preparation for The Flowering of Genius tour has been exhaustive. What we know of individual performances during this period is scant, but we do know that Mary's chosen husband, Philip of Spain, did not travel light. For their wedding in Winchester Cathedral, Philip brought the musicians of the Capilla Real to sing and play alongside Mary's Chapel Royal, an event that marked a dramatic stylistic shift in English church music.

In addition to commissioning new editions from musicologist Martyn Imrie, Christophers consulted historian Simon Schama over Mary's controversial union and her two phantom pregnancies. The result is a rich picture of post-Reformation England that uses 1554 as a basis for biography and an analysis of the relationship between British and Iberian music.

Ever the pragmatist, Christophers makes no attempt to justify this project as a "reconstruction". The programme spans 40 years of polyphony and has been chosen for sound and texture rather than historical specificity. Of the seven composers featured, Thomas Tallis was the one who most clearly demonstrated the effects of politics on music, writing through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, and witnessing the worst periods of religious persecution. Fittingly, it is his mass Puer Natus Est that has the closest links to Mary, as it is now believed that the antiphon on which it is based is a reference to her pregnancy. Certainly the dense seven-part texture reflects the burnished soundworld of the Capilla Real. And further anecdotes are dotted through the programme: Alsonso Lobo's motet Versa est in luctum (composed for the funeral of Philip), and Philippe De Monte's Super flumina Babylonis. De Monte was among the Spanish contingent at Mary's wedding and sent this psalm-setting to William Byrd years later. Byrd went on to complete another verse, Quomodo cantabimus, and both will be performed as a kind of coda to the period's musical exchange. As Christophers says, "It's touching to think that long before email and fax, musicians were working so closely."

If Christophers has something of the survivor behind his air of clubable affability, it's unsurprising. Life may be rosy now – he has guest conducting appointments aplenty with ENO and the BBC Philharmonic – but The Sixteen's recession was "terrible, absolutely terrible". For him, the group and this part of their repertoire in particular have been his musical grass roots. That they have survived is clearly a great relief and something he's unlikely to take for granted. "If it hadn't been for the incredible patience and loyalty of the players and singers, that would have been that for us," he says. "You have to be honest about what's happening. We were, and they stuck with us. I can't say we never look back. We always do. But we have to be masters of our own destinies. We can't let anyone else control something we've put our hearts into. It's very precious to us."

The Sixteen: The Flowering of Genius, York Minster and touring (01869 331711/01869 331544), Friday to 6 July 2002