THE Sixteen's conductor, Harry Christophers, was out in the woods walking his dog when he took The Press's phonecall.

He enjoys his "thinking time" on a bracing walk, a chance to mull over what concert programme he should put together for his esteemed a cappella choir's annual cathedral travels.

The answer for The Choral Pilgrimage 2018 was Sacred And Profane, wherein Christophers finds links between music separated by more than four centuries, as can be heard at York Minster on Wednesday night as part of this month's York Early Music Festival.

"William Cornysh and Benjamin Britten, two representatives of English music at its finest, were prolific in both sacred and secular music," says Christophers. "Cornysh is actually two people, often confused with one another and quite possibly father and son.

"Both originated in Westminster of unknown parentage; the Elder died in 1502 and the Younger in 1523, of whom much more is known. The matter of telling which man wrote which works is impossible to settle, so for the purpose of this programme we have decided to link them as one.

"So whether it be the Elder or the Younger, we are fortunate that they not only excelled at writing complex and adventurous antiphons for the church but also beautiful secular songs for the Tudor court. Of course for Britten writing in the 20th-century life was very different; he is a composer who encompassed so many facets of music excelling in opera, solo song and all manners of vocal and instrumental music."

Wednesday's 7.30pm programme comprises a first half of Britten's Hymn To The Virgin, Cornysh's My Love She Mourneth, Britten's Hymn To Saint Cecilia and Cornysh's Salve Regina, followed by Britten's Advance Democracy, three Cornysh pieces, Ave Maria, Mater Dei, Woefully Array’d and Ah Robin, Gentle Robin, and the climactic title piece, Britten's Sacred And Profane.

"This programme looks at the way these two composers mixed sacred with secular. Whilst Cornysh’s sacred music is elaborate and rhythmically complicated, his secular music is simple yet subtly evocative," says Christophers. "Britten makes constant demands on vocal artistry, best displayed in the last work he ever wrote for unaccompanied voices, Sacred And Profane, composed in the winter of 1974-75.

"Britten chose his texts with great care and devotion; these are mediaeval lyrics and he gives us a fascinating mixture of the devotional and the rumbustiously secular. The final song, A Death, is a wicked blend of horror and gallows humour far removed from Cornysh's melancholic canon Ah Robin."

The Sixteen's Choral Pilgrimage 2018 is as much a crusade as a pilgrimage. "If we weren't touring, people probably wouldn't have the chance to hear Britten's Sacred And Profane – it's a tricky piece – but a festival like York's gives us that opportunity," says Christophers.

"When thinking about doing a new programme for this year, faced by a blank piece of paper, I thought what could we do that would go with Britten's work? How about William Cornysh? Some people might consider it a wacky idea, putting the two together, but it works wonderfully."

Christophers decided to book-end his concert programme with Britten pieces of historic note. "We open with Hymn To The Virgin, which he wrote on his sick bed at school and finish with Sacred And Profane, the last piece he wrote, when he was ill, living in America and missing his homeland," he says.

Christophers wishes that Britten's diverse musical creativity was better appreciated at large. "I think it's still to do with his life as someone who was gay and a pacifist, and for the eldest generation that has lingered, but Britten's operas are wonderful and the subject matter of his lieder are just brilliant.

"Advance Democracy has words from 1944/1945 [written by left-wing poet Randall Swingler], smack in World War Two, but they are so resonant in today's political climate. So when we sing it, we have a little twinkle in our eyes and the audience get it too!"

No original members from their first concert in 1979 still sing with The Sixteen, but "the choir is better than ever", reckons Christophers. "The level of commitment of our ensemble is amazing today, when you're only as good as your last concert, whereas maybe we had a more cavalier attitude in the old days," he says.

"Above all, what makes a difference is that the group is performing more and more. Our live work is so important to us and is even better than the recordings, as it should be."

York Early Music Festival 2018 runs from today to July 14. The Sixteen perform Sacred And Profane at York Minster on July 11, 7.30pm to 9.15pm; the concert will be recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3.