Peter Phillips (conductor)

Peter Phillips (born 15 October 1953)[1] is a British choral conductor and musicologist. He was the founder of The Tallis Scholars[2] in 1973 and of Gimell Records[3] (with Steve Smith) in 1980.

Peter Phillips
PP for wikipedia.jpg
Born (1953-10-15) 15 October 1953 (age 68)
Alma materSt John's College, Oxford
OccupationChoral conductor, musicologist
  • Lucy Pilcher (step-daughter)
  • Harriet Pilcher (step-daughter)
  • Edmund (son)

Early life and educationEdit

Phillips was born in Southampton and educated at Winchester College (1967–71) and St John's College, Oxford (Organ Scholar 1972–75). He studied music with Hugh Macdonald, Denis Arnold and David Wulstan. He subsequently taught at Oxford University, Trinity College of Music and the Royal College of Music in London (where he directed the Chamber Choir in succession to David Willcocks), but had resigned all these posts by 1988 in order to pursue a full-time career in conducting.

The Tallis ScholarsEdit

Phillips's first concert with the Tallis Scholars took place in St Mary Magdalen's Church, Oxford on 3 November 1973. The group was made up of choral scholars (hence the use of the word 'Scholars' in the title) and layclerks from the leading Oxbridge choral foundations. From the start Phillips aimed to produce a distinctive sound, influenced by choirs he admired, in particular the Clerkes of Oxenford. However the repertoire he chose was idiosyncratic, based in his desire to explore neglected corners of the polyphonic repertories, continental as much as English. This first concert included music by Obrecht, Ockeghem and Lassus. After the foundation of Gimell Records in 1980, the Tallis Scholars have gone on to fill many gaps in the recording catalogue, making discs devoted to such relatively unknown composers as Obrecht, Ockeghem, Cardoso, White, Clemens, Gombert and Mouton.

Since winning the Gramophone Record of the Year Award in 1987, the Tallis Scholars have been recognised as perhaps the world's leading ensemble in interpreting renaissance polyphony. That 1987 disc inaugurated a career-long project of recording all of Josquin des Prez’s masses, ready for the 500th anniversary of the composer’s death, in 2021. The ninth and last disc in the series also won an Award entitled Record of the Year – from the BBC Music Magazine – in 2021, 34 years after the first one.

Phillips first met the composer John Tavener in 1977, which led to a lifelong friendship. For many years Tavener was the only living composer to write for The Tallis Scholars, a connection which resulted in such masterpieces as the Ikon of Light, the Lords Prayer (1999), Let not the Prince be silent, Tribute to Cavafy and The Requiem Fragments. In more recent years Phillips has commissioned Eric Whitacre, Gabriel Jackson, Nico Muhly, Ivan Moody, John Woolrich, Matthew Martin, Christopher Willcock, Michael Nyman; and in 2014 made a disc entirely dedicated to Arvo Pärt's tintinnabuli style.

Phillips gave his first Promenade concert in 1988, since when he has appeared eight more times, always with the Tallis Scholars, though in 2007 also with the BBC Singers, when the two groups joined forces to give the first modern performance of Striggio's 60-part Mass Ecco si beato giorno. Phillips and The Tallis Scholars appeared at the Proms on 4 August 2014 to help mark the exact anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, with a Requiem written for them by John Tavener, televised on BBC 4. In 2018 they returned to the Albert Hall to sing a specially adapted Compline service.

In 1990 Phillips was the subject of a South Bank Show, introduced by Melvyn Bragg. It followed the course of renaissance polyphony through England and the Netherlands and was entitled "A Personal Odyssey".

In 2013 he directed the Tallis Scholars in a 99-concert year of events, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the group. Amongst other countries they visited New Zealand for the first time, Australia for the seventh time, Japan for the 14th time, and the US for the 61st.

Other conducting workEdit

In 1985 Phillips was invited to conduct the Chapelle Royale of Paris (by Philippe Herreweghe), and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, which sparked a lifelong interest in working with groups trained outside the Anglican choral tradition. These invitations also promoted in Phillips an interest in European culture, cuisines and languages. He has owned property in Paris since 1989 and given interviews in French, German, Italian and Spanish. He is also a student of Arabic (in which he has not given an interview). As of 2021, The Tallis Scholars have given more than two-thirds of their 2500 concerts outside the UK.

Phillips started a collaboration with the BBC Singers in 2003, with whom he has now appeared in nearly 25 productions, most recently in May 2021 in a live broadcast from Maida Vale, featuring Mexican polyphony written for Puebla Cathedral. He also currently has projects in preparation with Intrada (Moscow), The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Tallinn), El Leon de Oro (Oviedo), The Nederlands Chamber Choir and The Taipei Chamber Singers.

Educational workEdit

In 2000 Peter Phillips and David Woodcock set up the first Tallis Scholars Summer School in Oakham. This was followed in 2005 by an extension in Seattle (US), and in 2007 by one in Sydney (Australia). He has also been involved with similar courses in Rimini, Evora and Barcelona. He lectured on the John Hall pre-University course in Venice from 1981 to 2019.

Phillips began an association with Merton College Chapel in 1974 when, as an undergraduate, he directed Tallis's 'Why fum'th in fight' as a prelude to a performance of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The Tallis Scholars recorded regularly in Merton Chapel between 1976 and 1987, returning more permanently in 2005. In 2006, with the help of Jessica Rawson and Simon Jones, Phillips established a new choral foundation at the College. This choir sang its first services under Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas in October 2008.

In 2014 Phillips helped to establish the first of three London International Choral Competitions at St John's Smith Square. Among the judges were John Rutter, Emma Kirkby, Alastair Hume, Mark Williams and James O'Donnell. Featured composers have been John Tavener, Gabriel Jackson and Arvo Pärt.

Phillips has recently become a founding trustee of the Muze Trust, a charity designed to help with musical education in Zambia. At the invitation of Paul Kelly he visited Lusaka in 2010, directing Vox Zambesi in a concert and a recording, and continuing as a Trustee to the present.


Phillips wrote a regular column for the Spectator magazine on all aspects of classical music from January 1983 to April 2016, a span of exactly a third of a century. In 1989 he also wrote a cricket column.

In 1995 he became the owner and publisher of the Musical Times – the oldest continuously published music journal in the world. He has also written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Times, the Guardian, the Musical Times, the Royal Academy Magazine, the BBC Music Magazine and the Evening Standard.

He has written three books: English Sacred Music 1549–1649 (Gimell, 1991);[4] What We Really Do (Musical Times, 2nd edition, 2013);[5] and, during the pandemic of 2020/21, a novel entitled The Blue French, about a performance of Tallis’s Spem in alium (yet to be published).

Other activitiesEdit

Phillips is a keen follower of cricket and a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club. He is also a member of the Chelsea Arts Club. In 1986 he became a qualified pilot, in the hope of taming his fear of turbulence.

Awards and honoursEdit

In 2005, Peter Phillips was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture, a decoration intended to honour individuals who have contributed to the understanding of French culture in the world, in his case Josquin des Prez.

From 2008 to 2016 he was made a Reed Rubin Director of Music at Merton College, Oxford, and in 2010 a Bodley Fellow. In 2021 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, where he had been Organ Scholar from 1972 to 1975.

With the Tallis Scholars he has received four Gramophone Awards (in 1987, 1991, 1994 and 2005); two Diapason d’Or de l’Année (in 1989 and 2012); three Grammy nominations (in 2002, 2009 and 2010); and Record of the Year from the BBC Music Magazine in 2021. His 1980 recording of Allegri's Miserere was said by the BBC Music Magazine to be one of the 50 greatest recordings of all time.[6]

In 2009 the Tallis Scholars were voted by Early Music Today the fourth most influential early group in the history of the genre[citation needed], after the instrumental ensembles of David Munrow, John Eliot Gardiner and Christopher Hogwood. In 2013 they were voted into the Gramophone's Hall of Fame[7] – about 120 names from the entire history of classical recording – the only early music group to be so listed.


  1. ^ Fabrice Fitch. "Phillips, Peter (ii)." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved 21/09/2009.
  2. ^ "The Tallis Scholars". Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  3. ^ "Gimell Records". Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  4. ^ "English Sacred Music 1549–1649 | Peter Phillips on things important". 8 January 2009. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  5. ^ "The Musical Times: What We Really Do". 27 February 2004. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  6. ^ "Gimell Records - 50 Greatest Recordings of All Time". 20 December 2011. Archived from the original on 12 December 2013. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  7. ^ "2013 Hall Of Fame". Gramophone. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  • English Sacred Music 1549–1649 (Gimell, 1991)
  • What We Really Do (Musical Times: 1st edition 2003)
  • What We Really Do (Musical Times: 2nd edition 2013)
  • Gramophone Magazine (September 1994): Cover Feature
  • Early Music Today (October/ November 2009 pg. 15)