in: Reviews

June 14, 2010

Less Commonly Heard 15th-Century Polyphony Well Delivered by Blue Heron

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In its concert on Saturday, June 12 at the First Church in Cambridge, the Renaissance choir Blue Heron presented a sampling of sacred and secular music by three generations of Franco-Flemish composers. An informative introduction by Sean Gallagher, musicologist and 15th-century specialist, preceded the performance.

For most of the 15th century, the singing schools of an area comprising parts of present-day Belgium, southern Netherlands, and northern France supplied the courts and cathedrals of Europe with a highly sophisticated repertory of sacred and secular music along with the skilled performers capable of doing it justice. Many of these composer-singers found work in Italy, Spain, Germany, or Hungary, often moving from one venue to another as they were traded, like international soccer stars, among rulers eager to enhance their prestige — on earth as in the afterlife — with a display of polyphonic music. Many of these skilled musicians returned home in their later years to assume comfortable administrative positions in their hometowns. Others, however, did not travel abroad but found good jobs in northern cathedrals or the French and Burgundian courts. The parallel careers of Gilles Binchois (c. 1400-1460) and Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397-1474), both born around the turn of the 15th century, are illustrative. Binchois, born and probably trained in Mons, Belgium, spent most of his career at the Burgundian court chapel, although his music was known and admired throughout Europe. Dufay was born near Cambrai, and received his early training at the cathedral (burned to the ground during the French Revolution), which boasted one of the finest choir schools in Europe. His far-flung career included service with the Malatesta family in Pesaro, the d’Este family in Ferrara, the papal chapel in Rome, and the dukes of Savoy in Turin. Rewarded with numerous benefices (church offices that provided solid income and few duties), in his later years he returned home to finish his career in Cambrai.

Saturday’s program began fittingly with a song attributed to Binchois in the earlier of its only two manuscript sources and to Dufay in a later Italian source. According to an eyewitness account, the piece was sung at the famous “Feast of the Pheasant” in 1454, the extravagant banquet held by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, to promote the idea of a new crusade to conquer the Turks, who had recently captured Constantinople. The rondeau Je ne vis oncques la pareille (“I have never seen the equal of you, my gracious lady”) is a love song that inspired a number of sacred works that quote its melody or tenor part within a polyphonic complex. Late medieval and Renaissance poets and composers were less interested in inventing original themes than in displaying their compositional skill. Part homage to an older master, part rivalry with contemporaries, borrowing from earlier works demonstrated a composer’s knowledge and skill to his fellow musicians and to informed audiences. In fact, all of the sacred music on Saturday’s program quoted or alluded to pre-existent music. If the mixture of sacred and secular themes seems odd to us today, for 15th-century musicians it occurred naturally in the context of a cult of the Virgin Mary and the exegetical tradition that interpreted the Song of Songs as a hymn to Mary as bride of Christ.

Je ne vis oncques la pareille was sung by soloists (“musicians of the chamber”) mezzo soprano Daniela Toši? and tenor Aaron Sheehan on the cantus and tenor parts, with Paul Guttry on the bass. Although one could have wished for a more forward pronunciation of the beautiful Middle French text, the three voices were perfectly matched in timbre — straight tone without vibrato — the sinuous intertwining of their melodic lines coming together at cadences with perfectly tuned octaves and unisons. Next we heard a setting of the Marian antiphon Salve regina by Johannes Ghiselin, active in Italy and France at the turn of the 16th century. The members of the Blue Heron choir assembled for the evening — identified in the program as “musicians of the chapel” — included Jennifer Ashe and Martin Near on the cantus, or top part, with Cameron Beauchamp and Paul Guttry singing bass, and Michael Barrett, Allen Combs, Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, Mark Sprinkle, and Sumner Thompson taking the contratenor and tenor parts. Choirs of this period would have comprised trebles who were usually male falsettists, sometimes boys, and never women. The contra-tenor (not to be confused with the modern term “countertenor”) was a voice part of alto or tenor range and function. Ghiselin’s Salve regina, like the setting of the same antiphon by Pierre de la Rue heard later in the program, is an alternatim settings in which the traditional Gregorian chant melody is heard in the odd verses, and four-voice polyphony in the even verses. Both settings quote from the melody of Je ne vis oncques la pareille. La Rue also quoted from Guillaume Dufay’s song Par le regard de vos beaux yeux (By the sight of your beautiful eyes) that begins with the last line of a poem by Jean Molinet, which itself begins Je ne vis oncques la pareille. For this song, Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe joined chamber singers Daniela Toši? and Aaron Sheehan wearing another hat, that of vielle, or medieval fiddle player, providing some welcome timbral variety.

A small ensemble of five male voices, singing without conductor, was employed in the five-voice motet Intemerata Dei mater (“Undefiled mother of God”) by Johannes Ockeghem, one of the most revered composers of the 15th century, who spent much of his career at the French royal court. This piece alludes to two of the composer’s own songs, while the contratenor part of his four-voiced Alma redemptoris mater (“Beneficent mother of the Savior”), sung by the full choir, is based on the plainchant melody on the same text. Ockeghem wrote an entire Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) based on his own rondeau Ma maistresse, which we heard in a beautiful performance by Lydia Brotherton, soprano soloist, joined by vielle players Scott Metcalfe and the ever-versatile Laura Jeppesen on the contratenor and tenor parts. Brotherton’s perfect intonation and mellifluous tone did full justice to the beauty of Ockeghem’s melody. Borrowings from the cantus and tenor parts of the song in the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in four voices, sung again by the full choir, are as hard to identify in performance as the numerous learned canonic devices for which Ockeghem became famous, but which do not begin to tell the story of this gloriously rich and densely unfolding polyphony.

Two more movements from the Mass Ordinary completed the program. Alexander Agricola’s Credo from his Missa Je ne vis oncques la pareille is a stunning setting for four low voice parts, in which material from the song is manipulated arithmetically — sung at normal speed, then augmented by three, again by three, then halved, virtuosic complexities that had to wait until the twentieth century to reappear. For listeners, however, it was not this “eye music” but the virtuosic intricacy of the contrapuntal lines, resolving in full harmony in a dark low range, that captivated the ear. The Missa Ecce ancilla Domini / Ne timeas Maria (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord / Fear not, Maria”) by Johannes Regis, an almost exact contemporary of Ockeghem, is based on two and occasionally five plainchant antiphons to the Virgin Mary. Blue Heron presented the Kyrie in the first half of the program, and the Agnus Dei as the concluding number.

Scott Metcalfe’s tempi throughout seemed about ideal: fast enough to preserve the sense of horizontal line so important to this music, yet leisurely enough to do justice to the many rhythmic subtleties that are the hallmark of 15th-century polyphony, particularly in ambitious sacred works. We can be grateful to Blue Heron for delving into this repertory, still less known to most audiences than 16th-century polyphony, but richly rewarding in its wayward and sometimes angular beauty. Despite the occasional jagged entrance, and the need for better projection of the texts, particularly in French, this was virtuoso ensemble singing, lovingly prepared and convincingly presented.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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