The singers of Blue Heron juxtaposed polyphonic settings for the Mass by the Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem with sweetly tuneful love songs upon which they were based (mostly Ockeghem’s own) in “Divine Songs,” Saturday at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. For those wishing to understand why 15th-century composers in particular might have favored such a seemingly incongruous co-mingling of sacred and secular, the excellent and highly readable program notes by Blue Heron’s Music Director Scott Metcalfe provided ample documentation, and in an engaging pre-concert talk, Professor Sean Gallagher of Boston University sketched the cultural and theological background of Ockeghem’s music for us. But it was the sheer beauty of the music in performances notable for their fine-tuned sensitivity to the nuances of interweaving melodic lines and overlapping cadences, in tones that were never pushed or forced, that captivated us, and could not help but convert newcomers to this repertory to the brilliant diversity of Ockeghem’s polyphony.
Countertenor Martin Near (singing the top voice, or cantus) and tenor Jason McStoots were supported by Scott Metcalfe on a small harp in Ockeghem’s haunting three-voice “Ma maistresse,” a love song expressing longing for “my lady . . . perfect in qualities” that could just as well be addressed to the Virgin Mary. The short “mensuration canon” at the opening of the song between cantus and tenor— the two parts singing the same motive in imitation but in different meters with different note values reappears in the Kyrie and Gloria of the Missa Ma maistresse as a clearly audible head motive of falling thirds, while the song tenor appears in the bass voice of both Mass movements. All eight singers— Pamela Dellal and Martin Near, cantus; Owen McIntosh and Jason McStoots, countertenors; tenors Mark Sprinkle and Sumner Thompson and basses Paul Guttry and David McFerrin— joined in the performance of the four-voice Mass. Singing without conductor in a semicircular arrangement of mixed high and low voices, the singers, all of them professional soloists at home in a variety of repertories, were highly adept at matching or complementing the diction, phrasing, pacing, dynamics, and tone color of their colleagues, each voice part coordinated with yet independent from the other, in melodic lines that proceed in strictly calculated note values yet infinitely varied groupings of two’s and three’s and are never dependent on regular downbeats. Obviously such coordination depends both on each singer’s high level of musicianship and on Metcalfe’s profound understanding of this music communicated in rehearsal, yet the resulting play of musical lines sounded completely natural and unforced.
In his pre-concert talk, Professor Gallagher situated Ockeghem geographically in the French-speaking Burgundian province of Hainault near Mons (now in Belgium), where he was born around 1420, then as a singer at Antwerp cathedral in the early 1440s, and by 1451 at the French royal court at Tours in the Loire Valley. Admired for his beautiful bass voice as well as for his compositional skills, Ockeghem was associated with the important musicians and poets of his day, became wealthy and powerful, and served for many years as treasurer of the important abbey of St. Martin at Tours. Chronologically, he belongs to the generation between the early 15th-century Franco-Flemish composers Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois and the late 15th-century master Josquin Desprez. He also belonged to the generation of composers closely associated with the development of the polyphonic Mass Ordinary cycle.
The Missa Ma maistresse is an incomplete cycle, consisting only of a Kyrie and a Gloria, the only two sections of the Mass Ordinary (texts heard in every Mass regardless of season, as opposed to Propers appropriate to specific days of the liturgical year) that are actually contiguous in the Liturgy. All the other movements of the Ordinary, which we are now accustomed to hearing in concert in unbroken succession, would have been interspersed with various spoken or sung texts, often in simple Gregorian chant or with improvised polyphonic enhancement. Sometime in the early to mid-15th-century, the idea of linking all five movements of the Ordinary in a cycle based on a single pre-existing plainchant melody became current first in England, then in northwestern Europe. By the mid-15th-century, when Ockeghem’s career was reaching its height, melodies from secular songs also began to be chosen as the unifying basis for cyclic Masses. Often the voice chosen as cantus firmus was the song’s supporting tenor rather than its top voice. The tenor of a well-known rondeau by Ockeghem serves as the cantus firmus in all three movements (all that are present in the only surviving manuscript) of his five-voice Missa Fors seullement; in addition, all three voices of the song are quoted extensively throughout. “Fors seullement l’atente que je meure” (Save only the expectation that I shall die) is a rondeau in the voice of a woman overcome by grief; she might be interpreted allegorically, Metcalfe believes, as the Virgin at the cross. A beautifully restrained performance of the song by Pamela Dellal and Martin Near on the two upper parts with support from Scott Metcalfe on the harp allowed the closely intertwined melodic lines to speak for themselves.
We heard the Credo of the Missa Fors seullement performed by five voices, one on a part (Pamela Dellal, Owen McIntosh, Mark Sprinkle, Sumner Thompson, and Paul Guttry). This might well have been the complement of expert singers of polyphony available in many 15th-century churches. The variety of vocal scoring in this movement is astounding. Every section in the lengthy prose text is introduced by a duet or trio in various timbral and textural combinations: two high voices, two low voices, middle voices; staggered entries in imitation, simultaneous entries in free polyphony, voices united in close harmony; all five voices together are heard primarily at the ends of sections. Once again, ensemble and blend were close to earthly perfection.
Ockeghem’s three-voice song “Presque transi” (On the verge of death) has been proposed (in an article by Haruyo Miyazaki) as the “parent” of his four-voice Missa Mi-mi. In fact, the characteristic falling-fifth (e – A) motto that opens the tenor of the song appears at the beginning of the bass in each of the five movements of the Mass, and other material from the song seems to permeate the other voices. The tag “Mi-mi” found in some sources refers to the solmization syllable that would be sung to the pitches e and A in the hexachord scales on c and F. The song text, a virelai, is certainly mournful, with possible Christological associations, and the Phrygian mode of both song and Mass is traditionally associated with mourning. The performance of the song by Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, and David McFerrin was exquisite in its rendering of its somber mood. The Sanctus, performed by the entire choir, contrasts full-voiced Sanctus and Osanna sections with opposing upper-voice (Pleni sunt caeli) and lower-voice (et terra) duets, a nice bit of word painting. More duets in the Benedictus, for tenor and bass, cantus and contratenor, and cantus and tenor, provided further timbral contrast before the resounding final Osanna.
Countertenor Martin Near’s performance, supported on two medieval fiddles by Laura Jeppesen and Scott Metcalfe, of the celebrated rondeau “De plus en plus,” by Gilles Binchois, brought out its highly expressive yet wayward character, in which phrases start in declamatory style, one note per syllable, then taper off into elaborate melisma and end in surprising places. In choosing the tenor of this song as the cantus firmus of his four-voice Missa De plus en plus, Ockeghem paid homage to an admired composer of the previous generation. Blue Heron completed its “compound” Mass Ordinary cycle with the Agnus Dei from Ockeghem’s Mass, sung by all eight members of the choir.
To round out Blue Heron’s “Divine Songs,” the ever-versatile Laura Jeppesen and Scott Metcalfe presented instrumental versions of Ockeghem’s countermelody to the well-known “O rosa bella” (on two fiddles) and Johannes Tinctoris’s elaboration of Ockeghem’s “D’ung aultre amer” (Jeppesen on a rebec, Metcalfe on harp).