in: Reviews

December 20, 2010

Musically and Politically Correct Blue Heron

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The Blue Heron Renaissance Choir, directed, and on occasion with instruments performed, by Scott Metcalfe, presented a superbly conceived and executed complex program, “Christmas at the Courts of the 15th-Century France, Burgundy, & Cyprus,” to a packed First Church in Cambridge Congregational on Saturday, December 18; it was repeated in New York City the following day at Corpus Christi Church on West 21st St.

Cyprus, you ask? Well yes, as was explained in Metcalfe’s equally superb program notes. The island, conquered by Richard Coeur de Lion during the Crusades, was ruled from 1191 to 1491 by the noble French family of Guy de Lausignan and his descendents. And isn’t Burgundy part of France, again you ask? Well not exactly: it was a separate duchy during much of the 15th century until it fell into the hands of the Hapsburgs in 1477. (That’s enough for now — read the notes — and while you’re at it, whether you’re a neophyte or an aficionado, do read Metcalfe’s statement on the performance practices adopted by the Blue Heron, just to begin to understand the kinds of musical choices they must make.)

One more item from the program notes I should quote in full:

[I]t is a bitter truth that some of the most joyous Christmas texts are marred by venomous barbs aimed at Jews and others regarded by Christianity as unbelievers; some of these were set to beautiful music. There is no single solution to this problem. Our choice is to emend the texts so that we can sing them wholeheartedly, and Richard Tarrant and Larry Rosenwald devised good solutions for [Grenon’s] Nova vobis gaudia and [Dufay’s] Letabundus, respectively.

This topic has been raised recently in reference to later music (Handel’s Messiah), and remains controversial, but there is no reason to debate Metcalfe’s decision here.

Metcalfe has a nice sense of drama that puts his richly excellent musical ensemble over the top. The program’s divisions were designated as “Advent,” “Christmas,” and “New Year’s,” with a later return to “Christmas” almost as a coda. For Advent, he noted that the days are short and the nights long before the winter solstice, so the opening plain chant antiphon for December 20, O clavis David (O key of David), was presented nearly in the dark, with only the church’s candles for light, and five of the twelve singers singing in a semicircle with their backs to the audience, facing a substantial candelabra (so they could see their music). They then turned around, and with only slightly more light, sang Jacob Obrecht’s multi-texted and multi-textured five-voice motet, Factor orbis (Maker of the world), based in part on O clavis and also on the next chant, O virgo virginum (O virgin of virgins), which in turn was followed by Josquin’s six-part motet of the same title. “Advent” concluded with Conditor alme siderum (O beautiful creator of the stars), an alternatim hymn in which seven voices sing the first verse of the chant in unison, followed by the next verse sung by three voices with the chant melody on top, and the other voices in fauxbourdon, the middle voice a fourth below the melody; after three alternations, the piece ends with a striking “Amen” in unison (i.e., sung by all ten voices). This was the first of three evenly spaced works by Guillaume Dufay, the others appearing in the next two sections.

The twelve singers in this concert as a whole were: mezzo-soprano Jennifer Ashe, countertenors Douglas Dodson, Martin Near, and Gerrod Pagenkopf; tenors Michael Barrett, Brad Fugate, Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, and Mark Sprinkle; baritone Glenn Billingsley; bass-baritone Paul Guttry; and bass John Proft. They all did themselves proud.

“Christmas” began with the long and complex Nato canunt omnia (The whole host sings piously), by Antoine Brumel. In this case the “whole host” alternated with solo voices, using a plethora of texts and canti fermi, resulting in a joyful, even “rollicking” motet, as Metcalfe says, which was to carry us through the immediately following long intermission. “Christmas”  continued with Dufay’s Letabundus (Full of joy), a Christmas sequence (liturgically speaking) that, like his earlier Conditor alme siderum, depended on alternating chant (à 4) with three-voiced solos — the latter in two groups that also alternated until they sang together in the final strophe (à 6). This section ended with Jean Mouton’s Marian sequence, Ave Maria, gratia plena (Hail Mary full of grace), a lovely chant-based tribute sung by ten voices.

Whereas “Advent” and “Christmas“ comprised liturgical chant or motets based on them, “New Years’s Day” presented five secular works, songs of courtly love about the traditional gift-giving. Metcalfe took this opportunity to introduce the early instruments that might have been substituted for vocal parts (see performance practices): he himself performed (always from memory) on vielle (medieval fiddle) and harp, and Laura Jeppeson on vielle and rebec (a small bowed lute). Baude Cordier’s Ce jour de l’an (This New Year’s Day) was sung with poignance by Martin Near and accompanied by the two vielles. Gilles de Binchois’ Margarite, fleur de valeur (Margarite, flower of valor) was sung without accompaniment by Jason McStoots, Paul Guttry, and John Proft, providing a nice change of emphasis to the lower vocal range. Johannes Ockeghem’s well-known D’ung aultre amer (Of another love) was performed in an arrangement for rebec and harp alone by Johannes Tinctoris. Dufay’s chanson, Entre vous, gentils amoureux (Among yourselves, noble lovers), presented two high voices (Gerrod Pagenkopf and Mark Sprinkle) with vielle (Metcalfe), and Nicolas Grenon’s La plus belle et doulce figure (The most beautiful and sweet figure) was sung with appropriate grace by Martin Near, accompanied by vielle and harp.

In the return to “Christmas,” we heard two longer works. Grenon’s Nova vobis gaudia refero (I bring you news of great joy) was performed by four (unidentified) high voices, vielle, and harp. The final cadence, following two joyful “Noel”s, is a two-voiced Amen—the “A” on a perfect fourth, and the “men” expanding to a perfect fifth, sung fortissimo. Now that is truly a joyful sound! The Cypriote repertoire was represented by Hodie puer nascitur (triplum) / Homo mortalis (duplum) (A boy is born today / Man is mortal), an anonymous, bitextual, isorhythmic, mystical motet for Christmas Day from a manuscript dated 1413-1422. (Again the lights were dimmed.) It was sung by a tenor soloist and six other voices in the upper ranges with great beauty, reverence, and respect for the complexities of the structure. For an encore, the ensemble strung itself out across the full chancel, with full lighting, and sang (joined by Laura Jeppesen), “Nova, nova,” a rousing unison tune based on simply “Do-La-Do-Sol,” repeated until Metcalfe gave the signal to stop. I have no idea where this comes from, but it’s a keeper!

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

9 Comments

  1. Dear Intelligencer,

    Many thanks for this generous and appreciative review. I write just to give credit where it is due. Daniela Tosic was, most unfortunately, unable to sing in the concert due to illness. She was replaced in the larger works, on very short notice, by Douglas Dodson; the song Ce jour de l’an, which she was to have sung, was actually “sung with poignance,” as the writer puts it, by Martin Near. These changes were announced at the concert, but I am afraid that First Church’s acoustics do not favor comprehension of the spoken word when unaided by amplification. Also, Michael Barrett is actually a tenor; it’s very hard to keep all the performers distinct when every piece is scored differently.

    While I’m writing, I’d also like to question the headline, “Musically and politically correct Blue Heron,” which I strongly suspect was added by someone other than the writer. Why “correct”? “Politically correct” must refer to our decision to rewrite a few lines of Latin verse rather than make ourselves sing cheerfully about the blindness, stubbornness, and damnation of Jews. (If you are interested in the original text of Letabundus, you can find it on Pomerium’s 1997 recording for Archiv.) The reviewer herself takes pains to quote the program notes that explained the decision and she says there is no reason to debate it; nor does she characterize it as “politically correct,” which is why I guess that someone other than she came up with the headline. “Politically correct,” a term that I remember being tossed about in the 1980s by liberals poking fun at their own oversensitive tendencies, is nowadays a mild insult used to mock people who are concerned with others’ feelings. I would call that good manners, but then again, my family is Canadian.

    What, then, of “musically correct”? We certainly aspire to sing the right notes at the right time, but given the implications of “politically correct,” I fear that the message here is again the tired one that an ensemble that devotes itself to music before the Romantic era, and does so with enthusiastic interest in history and the performance practices of the past, must necessarily be putting some imagined historical fidelity or “correctness” first—before, you know, expression and feeling and fun and pleasure and all those things that must have been invented by Mozart, or maybe Beethoven. (Again, this is clearly not the opinion expressed by the reviewer, who praises the concert for its drama, joyful sound, and great beauty—her words.) Needless to say, modern-instrument ensembles don’t find themselves categorized this way.

    Perhaps the headline editor meant the headline to sound benign. But since those of us professionally involved in early music still endure this kind of automatic labelling over and over again, let me once again try to set the record straight: We perform the music we do because we love it. We find it moving and involving and compelling on many levels. We are also interested in history and in historical performance practice. We try to put all this love and interest and research in the service of emotionally and intellectually satisfying performance, and we don’t see any conflict between soul and mind.

    Scott Metcalfe
    music director, Blue Heron

    Comment by Scott Metcalfe — December 23, 2010 at 5:58 pm

  2. Regarding the recurring (alas) problem of antisemitic or otherwise racist texts in early music repertoires, there are several kinds of solution available. The simplest, of course, is not to perform such works at all. My own choice is to leave genuinely vile texts sleeping on the library shelf.

    When a song or motet text is only “slightly” or incidentally racist, one can justifiably rewrite the words, as Scott evidently chose to do, or (this is my choice) let the obnoxious phrase or two pass without making too much of it, in the name of honesty and truth. Western civilization has, unfortunately, some very unpleasant things at its core, as well as much that is precious. And it happens, at times, that these threads become interwoven.

    Man is a fallen creature. Sometimes just putting up with human imperfection seems preferable to rewriting a spotted past. Those of us who have had to deal with elderly or distant relatives at holiday time may understand what I am getting at.

    And a Merry Christmas to all!

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 24, 2010 at 2:58 pm

  3. First, my apologies for having to be so slow to respond to Scott Metcalfe’s excellent posting.

    Next my apologies again for not being able to hear his remarks in the chancel from my seat in the balcony. I did notice that there was only one female singer in the group instead of two, and after checking various Websites with singers’ portraits, I was pretty sure I had not seen Daniela Tošic on stage. But because her name was in the program, I took a chance, as I could not have identified the person who sang in her place. Thanks so much for this correction.

    I must also take the responsibility, rather than the editor, for the title of the review, as indeed it was a bit glib, especially for such sensitive issues. With respect to “politically correct,” I tend to agree with Joel Cohen’s gentle remarks above. Thanks to Lee Eiseman’s bringing this to my attention, readers may be interested to compare the texts (Latin and translations) of the liturgical sequence, Lætabundus as displayed in The Liturgia Latina Project here, with the text printed in the program notes p. 13 here, where the last three verses vary significantly. I have been unable to check the latter against any edition of Dufay’s text yet. With respect to “musically correct,” I’m not sure there is any such thing, in any era. By now there is of course interest in and much writing about performance practices in all periods, including the romantic. Such healthy, informed debate, yea even speculation, informs both performers and audiences. Woe be unto a performance, however, that is not generated by love of the music, nor is not emotionally as well as intellectually satisfying, as you say. I only hope I conveyed how much this reviewer, anyway, understood your motives and appreciated the results, on many levels.

    Comment by Mary Davidson — December 25, 2010 at 1:14 am

  4. “‘Nova! Nova! I have no idea where this comes from.”
    –Mary Wallace Davidson

    It’s a very famous and often recorded 15th century carol from England. I’m surprised you’ve never heard it before. It has always saddened me that the really great medieval carols are so frequently ignored by contemporary performance groups and they’re never heard on the radio. One of the greatest, surely, is “Marvel not, Joseph,” which I believe has been recorded by Joel Cohen’s Boston Camerata, among others, years ago. It’s an amazing text set to wonderful music.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 25, 2010 at 10:14 am

  5. P.S. “Nova, nova” and “Marvel not, Joseph” are collected with all other extant 15th century carols in Volume IV of the excellent edition of British music, Musica Britannica. The volume is edited by John Stevens. It was first printed in 1952 and the most recent edition is 1976. Stainer and Bell is the publisher.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 25, 2010 at 10:58 am

  6. I was pleased to read the thoughtful comments about the various ways in which performers today deal with problematic texts of vocal music written in the past, but I was less than pleased to see that the question was raised at all. This tiresome issue keeps coming up, but I wish it didn’t. For example, we recently had the claim by the musicologist Michael Marissen that Handel’s Messiah was blatantly anti-Semitic and celebrated the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Fortunately, the response was swift and overwhelming, and Handel emerged relatively unscathed. There was a similar period of guilt-laden handwringing some years ago about the text of Bach’s St. John Passion. Is it anti-Semitic? Yes, of course. But people wondered if the words should be changed, or even if the work should be performed at all. This Jewish harpsichordist, who has played Bach’s masterpiece many times and listened to it with awe and pleasure throughout his life, would be horrified if “political correctness” actually caused that to happen to the St. John Passion, or to any great music with an objectionable text.

    Our contemporary culture has indeed become so thin-skinned that we are now frozen by our fear of saying or doing anything that might have the slightest potential to hurt the feelings or sensitivities of one group or another. To extend this approach to what was said in the past, however, and especially in the context of artistic expression, is a particularly slippery slope. Should we remove from museum walls any work of art that portrays (take your pick) Jews, women, Moors, Asians, animals or anything or anyone else in a negative light? When performing Shakespeare, should we change or even excise his “bad” words? I am reminded of Mort Sahl, that comedian from the 1960s who used to end his biting and sarcastic routines by asking: “are there any groups I haven’t offended yet?” The reactions then were just as they should have been: people laughed—at him, and at themselves. Let’ s lighten up, please.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — December 26, 2010 at 9:41 am

  7. Early music can still be said to have acquired little depth of meaning for mainstream music lovers. This saddens me. Among its charms, for those sufficiently interested to invest seriously in the concommittant EM learning curve, has always been the excitment of now and again gaining vivid insight into what makes vanished or partially familiar cultures truly spring to life in our time. As with any avalanche of knowledge, impressions, interpretations, and the sheer tactile feel of some corner of an old civilization, one is at the same time overwhelmed and completely captivated by the realization that there is much, much more to be learnt than one is likely ever to have access to. The personalities, details, and musical quirks of earlier eras are absorbing to an extent topped only by the joy of sharing them with, and being suprised by the perceptions of, others equally riveted by them. With the flood of knowledge comes a wonderful sense of the complexity of “back when” that, wonder be, reminds us that earlier peoples and cultures lived in worlds precisely as complex as our own. Different, and equally rich.

    How, then, can we not practise a degree of acceptance and tolerance of former ways of thinking, opining, self-expression, inveighing against, honoring, and exalting? The anti-semitic givens of the 16th-early 18th centuries are unacceptable for moderns. That, though, absolutely should not stop us from hearing and deeply enjoying choral music with texts that reflect superceded, even hateful tenets. I gladly absorb recast German, Italian, Latin texts, if an ensemble wants to offer them, but why demand them or — worse — expect them?

    Good grief. If North American music lovers can’t muster the breadth of perspective and a modicum of tolerance to hear such manifestations of old ways of thinking, presented unapologetically and in caring historical context, why bother to call ourselves informed, civilized, moderately educated, and the like?

    Expect tolerance within these arts of ours. Rather, demand it. Accepting the validity of pressure to sanitize thought by our ancestors says something inutterably triste about our civilization. It’s not the censuring itself, but our acceptance of the need for it, that does away with the humanist forum toward which we’re supposed to have been striving all these long millennia.

    Or?

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — January 5, 2011 at 7:29 pm

  8. An interesting article in today’s New York Times, relating to this issue:

    “Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/books/07huck.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp

    ‘Mr. Gribben’s effort to update “Huckleberry Finn”… ratifies the narcissistic contemporary belief that books, plays and poetry from other times and places should somehow be made to conform to today’s democratic ideals.’

    In fact, as the article correctly points out, the discussion has been going on for a long time.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 7, 2011 at 12:35 am

  9. That’s a very good (and timely for us) article, Mr. Cohen. I think it stands very well for the idea that while there is justification for requiring contemporary speech to conform to contemporary standards, to rewrite the works of earlier writers is not justified.

    A rigid adherence to this principle can create a dilemma, of course. Does a performer or performing group perform a musically worthwhile piece when it is highly likely that members of the audience will be offended by the text? Perhaps print a disclaimer in the program notes ( which may end up satisfying no one)?

    This reminds me of the “St. John Passion” by James MacMillan, which the BSO gave its American premiere just under a year ago. The composer decided to include an ancient text called “Improperia” (“Reproaches”). This text is a pastiche, beginning with a quotation from the Book of Micah 6:3-4 which goes on to contrast Gods treatment of the Israelites with the sufferings of Jesus — interspersed with a plea to God for mercy in Greek. In its original form, the reproaches themselves were in Latin. It was written to be used in the liturgy of Good Friday, but it is optional now and, I think, not widely used. The problem is that a surface reading of the Latin portions can seem to indict the Jews as a whole for torturing and killing Jesus despite God’s goodness to them. A careful theology can undo the surface anti-Judaism by pointing out that Christianity sees the death of Jesus as needed because of the sins of the whole human race. Thus it is every Christian’s fault that Jesus suffered and died. This point is reinforced by the fact that the Greek portion asks God to have mercy on us, the Christian worshippers. Unfortunately, Mr Macmillan has chosen to use an English translation of the Latin, accusatory parts, but to leave the Greek plea for mercy in Greek. Mr. MacMillan, it seems to me, is entitled as the composer, to do this. But it has the unfortunate effect of giving free reign to the surface anti-Judaism of the Latin portion without the subtle corrective of the Greek portion. I cringed inwardly when I saw that this was part of MacMillan’s work. It can misrepresent Christianity to both Christians and non-Christians. Yet it is an old Christian text written to be sung in the context of a service in which the St. John Passion is read. What is someone who would like to perform the work to do?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm

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