On Saturday, October 16, a sizable audience at First Church Congregational in Cambridge was privileged to hear Blue Heron under Scott Metcalfe present what was almost certainly the North American premiere of Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Regnum mundi, composed in the 1530s. The principal reason for its lack of performances is surely that the tenor partbook has been missing for most of the mass’s existence. (Until the 19th century, each choral part was written out separately, not showing the other parts — four, in this case.) Having been written on the cusp of the Reformation, it was soon deemed, like all polyphonic music of Tudor-period English Catholicism, “vain, foolish, mad, fantastical,” even potentially capable of the “undoing of Christian souls.” It is unknown whether the tenor partbook was destroyed by reforming zealots or hidden away by a Catholic musician in an incomplete effort to preserve some wonderful but politically incorrect music.
Fortunately, the tenor part of Ludford’s mass was reconstructed brilliantly by the contemporary English musicologist Nick Sandon, and the completed mass was subsequently published for the first time in 2007.
Scored for the five parts of treble, mean, contratenor, tenor, and bass, the mass movements are Gloria, Credo, Sanctus (including Benedictus), and Agnus Dei. To place them in liturgical context, they were interspersed with seven pieces of Sarum plainchant in varying configurations of the twelve singers. The opening introit “Me exspectaverunt peccatores” (The wicked have waited for me) began with men only, but the women soon joined them an octave higher, gently enough that it seemed simply an enhancement of overtones. Blue Heron’s chant singing had unanimity of ensemble, a natural rise and fall, and beautiful flexibility. Given the added benefit of First Church’s cathedral-like acoustic, it achieved the monastic ideal.
After the admittedly sweet austerity of monodic plainchant in the introit and Kyrie, the blossoming harmony of Ludford’s Gloria was uplifting in its beauty with the shimmer of impeccable intonation. Other highlights were the many expressive melismata such as that on the word “patris” (of the father). And though the generous acoustics of First Church may have aided some subtle staggered breathing, one had to admire how the many extremely lengthy phrases were shaped and sustained effortlessly.
In contrast to the introit, the next plainchant, “Specie tua” (In your comeliness), was conductorless (Mr. Metcalfe joined in the singing) and began with the women, the men soon joining them.
Ludford’s Credo was characterized by terraced dynamics created by adding or removing voice parts, but the perfect balance remained constant throughout. Those of us accustomed to the fairly dramatic mood changes of later mass settings at “Et incarnatus” (He was made flesh) and “Crucifixus” (He was crucified) here had to realign our expectations. Such mood changes were not absent, but instead of achieving them through contrasted tempi and dynamics as well as major versus minor mode, Ludford employed subtler means: variations of length of note values and of complexity of polyphony. Nonetheless, though the “Et resurrexit” (He rose again) also began gently, it grew in excitement particularly in the passage when Christ ascends to heaven. The movement was capped by an elaborate Amen which rose to a summit before finally reaching a serene conclusion.
Following some more plainchant, Ludford’s Sanctus was the essence of expansiveness. The movement has less than one quarter the text of the Credo but is almost one third again as long as the latter. This section was replete with extended melismata — not infrequently spending multiple measures on a single syllable. Like the preceding “Et resurrexit,” the “Osanna” began modestly then built to a glorious peak with florid writing on “in excelsis” (in the highest) and finally subsided to a tranquil close. The “Benedictus” was rather more contemplative while still using intricate imitative counterpoint.
The conclusion of the mass proper, Agnus Dei, opened with the choir caressing the opening phrase in a truly supplicating fashion but also featured a display of sophisticated imitative polyphony. The Blue Heron singers were ever attentive to which individual part “had the spotlight” at any given moment, each part commanding attention at the proper time then toning down to make way for the next. Surely this is a prime example of the advantage of every singer reading from a full score rather than a single partbook. Staying faithful to the liturgical context, the program included two final bits of plainchant, “Feci iudicium” (I have wrought judgement) and “Ite missa est” (Go, it is finished), as beautifully rendered as the others but inevitably an anticlimax after the brilliance of Ludford’s polyphony. Therefore we were treated to one more polyphonic piece to round off the program.
Hugh Aston’s votive antiphon “Gaude virgo mater Christi” (Rejoice, virgin, mother of Christ) is a showpiece of Tudor polyphony, without question. The first five sections of text all begin with “Gaude” (Rejoice), and the piece is a musical illustration of rejoicing with much exuberant tossing back and forth of motifs between the parts. These singers of high quality clearly enjoy this music, and the effect is mesmerizing. The concluding Amen was the final glory with waves of sound cresting and receding, ultimately building to a perfectly balanced, vibrato-less, ringing final chord. The audience responded with a hearty standing ovation. We eagerly anticipate Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron’s continued exploration of this nearly unknown corner of the choral repertoire.