Hymn boys: how beautiful can Tallis really be?

Hymn boys: how beautiful Thomas Tallis can be.

So odd.  I’d not heard anything like it for decades.  But there it was, as it unmistakably left my lips and hung in the air.  A whistle, yes, a whistle, complete with shrilly vibrato, as though it had emerged from one of those content old men who can knock out any melody at the drop of a hat.

How on Earth did it happen?

It was last Sunday morning.  I was sitting at the dining-room table, beside me a good coffee half drunk, in front the laptop whirring away as I did something easy on the screen.  Playing on the stereo in the background was a CD I hadn’t listened to for years.  Bearing the Bell: the Hymns of Thomas Tallis by Sydney-based jazz saxophonist Andrew Robson.

Let me say that I’m not fond of jazz.  I don’t even like the look of the word (it looks almost obscene).  And I don’t like a thing about the saxophone – Kenny G’s got a lot to answer for.  But I bought Bearing the Bell after reading a review of it in the newspaper.  What originally intrigued me was the way Robson so irresistibly abstracts his selection of sixteen-century ‘tunes’, which are the basis for many Christian hymns.  It’s delicious music.

These days I don’t have a religious breath in my chest, but the majority of my first eighteen years were spent at an all-boys Anglican school on Sydney’s North Shore, one where weekly attendance at chapel was compulsory, and taken very seriously – by most students.  If there was one thing I loved about chapel it was singing the hymns, especially the ones where Tallis was the source.

The hymns were unfathomably beautiful.  The harmonies.  The passing notes.  The big, glorious, skin-tightening finishes.  Now I think about it, what a strange act it was to bellow out lines such as ‘When in the slippery paths of youth/with heedless steps I ran/thine arm unseen conveyed me safe/and led me up to man’ (from “When All Thy Mercies, O My God”).

Who knows what these words really mean.

All I know is that listening to Robson’s imaginative take on Tallis last Sunday morning made me whistle.  The whistle was brief, really just half a dozen notes, but in that moment I felt happier than I have in decades.  As if I was nothing more than a teenager again and walking the cool corridors of school.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 10 August 2013.)

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