in: Reviews

March 31, 2013

650 Years Later: Machaut’s Mass

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On the eve of Easter, several dozen would-be listeners took numbers and waited in a line outside the sold-out St. John’s Chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge in hopes of snagging a ticket for work first heard about 650 years ago. The Boston Camerata, directed by Anne Azéma, offered the music of the Mass Ordinary (the musical portions of the Mass whose texts remain fixed throughout the liturgical year) by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377), the most significant composer of the 14th century and also no mean poet. They were joined by Convivium Musicum, Michael Barrett, director, an ensemble specializing in plainsong, to perform the Mass Propers for a specific liturgical purpose.

When we hear the Ordinary in concert, whether one by Machaut, Dufay, Josquin, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Haydn, or Mozart, the sections—Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei—are performed directly one after another, like the movements of a symphony. But in a church service, they are always placed within the context of other liturgical materials which reflect the particular occasion—a feast in the church year like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc., or a special saint’s day, a particular expression of devotion to the Virgin (many opportunities developed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance). Because the text that surrounds the Ordinary of the Mass was special, or proper, to the occasion, these sections are called the Propers. A complete service, lasting perhaps an hour or so, intersperses readings, prayers, and other musical elements (such as a motet) among the movements of the Ordinary.

An invitation in 2011 to help celebrate the 800th Anniversary of the French Cathedral inspired the Boston Camerata. Director Anne Azéma described in an article [here] in the Intelligencer about the honor of being asked to take part in this celebration, as well as the musical and scholarly issues involved. For the first American presentation of their version of the Machaut Mass, they chose a small neo-Gothic chapel, possibly about the size of a side chapel at the great cathedral in Reims, where it is likely that the Mass was first heard.

The Propers included Saturday were connected to the devotion to Mary, beginning with “Salve, sancta Parens” (Hail holy mother) for the Introit, were monophonic compositions given by the members of Convivium Musicum (Noah Bullock, Christopher Chase, Michael Dettelbach, T. Jefferson Kline, Christopher Laumer, John Nesby, and Dan Schenk). Most of this music was sung in unison, though some portions featured a solo voice. The intonation, or opening words, which gives the pitch to the others, is naturally one of these, and the Biblical readings from Ecclesiastes and Luke are chanted with minimal melodic content by a single reader.

This framework marked the arrival of the Ordinary, with four polyphonic parts, all the more striking. Today we are familiar with music in parts, but even as late as the 14th-century this would be extremely difficult music; only highly trained virtuosi, who were able to hold their own parts, could meet the demands of the often syncopated, rhythms that were far from the flowing regularity of the plainchant.

We heard superb musicians, among the most highly regarded in this repertory in the worldwide company of early music performers. Technical issues were handled with aplomb, giving the impression that they have sung this music from birth. When I began studying Medieval and Renaissance music in the early 1960s, live performances were virtually impossible to find, and recordings were so monotonously dull and lifeless that we students often asked one another how on earth music could have survived. All that, happily, has changed. Hearing Medieval music sung by an ensemble as expert as this, and as committed to bringing the music to life, easily answers that half-century old question.

The singers of Camerata included Michael Barrett, Timothy Leigh Evans, Daniel Hershey, Eric Mentzel (all tenors), Joel Nesvadba (baritone), and Donald Wilkinson (bass-baritone, replacing the ailing Paul Guttry).  It was originally planned to have an all-vocal performance, but illness necessitated the addition of two sacqueboutiers (players of the sackbut, an early form of the trombone—here Brian Kay and Steven Lundahl) to essay several passages for which Machaut provided no words. These instruments have a long history in liturgical performance, and they added striking colors when they entered.

To hear a work of such historic significance and power in a complete liturgical setting (though without the Eucharist or other actions that would have made it an actual religious service) on the night before Easter, performed with such complete mastery of the materials and the style made for a thrilling sense of artistic time travel, a fact recognized by the enthusiastic standing ovation from the packed house.

Last seconds of the performance (Joel Cohen photo)

Last seconds of the performance (Joel Cohen photo)

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

4 Comments

  1. Machaut’s Notre Dame polyphony remains at the top of my list ever since I first heard these strange sounds in undergraduate school. After decades, I finally have had the opportunity to hear this music live. My wife and I were in tears so taken were we by Camerata’s thoughtful planning–the chapel, the singers, the music heard during Holy Week. The cadence of Machaut’s music and medieval pleading from Camerata were glorious to the ear and deeply moving to the spirit.

    Comment by David Patterson — April 1, 2013 at 7:59 am

  2. My husband and I — along with a large coterie of Boston music lovers known to us, also were at this Easter Eve concert. David Patterson is right on; we were like those medieval church-goers who “first heard these strange sounds” — to the credit of Ms. Azema, whose choice of including the elements of the Mass made it so much more striking. It helped us marvel at the polyphony, especially in the Credo and Sanctus, with its “dissonance.” It makes me laugh when current-day concert-goers complain of “dissonance” as if it were solely the property of 20th-century music; Machaut achieved then, as the music did on Saturday night, an unexpected, refreshing complexity of tones.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — April 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

  3. The difference is that in the 20th century the dissonance was emancipated, like the serfs. In the 14th it was still properly subservient.

    Comment by SamW — April 1, 2013 at 3:42 pm

  4. SamW: yes, indeed. Your analogy is most apt.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — April 1, 2013 at 5:42 pm

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