The vocal ensemble Blue Heron opened its 16th-annual subscription series with performances Friday in Weston and Saturday in Cambridge of “A Mass for St. Augustine of Canterbury.” I attended Saturday’s concert at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational.
The program consisted chiefly of an anonymous English mass without title (“sine nomine”) from about 1540. Only a group with the interpretive mastery and the popular following of Blue Heron could come close to filling so large a space with a program devoted chiefly to an anonymous composition from an obscure period of early music history. In principle, attaching a composer’s name to a work should not make any difference to how we hear it. But anonymous music rarely attracts crowds, for knowing the composer gives us some basic expectations of what we will hear and how to listen to it. Not knowing who wrote it makes the listening experience more difficult, or at least less predictable.
In the present case, even related works that bear a composer’s name are almost as mysterious. For this mass belongs to the little-known period of English church music that followed King Henry VIII’s break from Rome but preceded the establishment of a distinctly Protestant order of service, with a corresponding new musical style. As director Scott Metcalfe explains in his typically detailed program notes (available here), most of the known English composers of this period are represented by barely a handful of works. Robert Hunt’s votive antiphon “Ave Maria, mater Dei,” the only other polyphonic work on Saturday’s program, might as well be anonymous. Only one other work bears his name, and we know essentially nothing about him.
Actually, as Metcalfe admits, some 20 percent of the programed material was by neither Hunt nor the anonymous composer of the mass. In both works the original tenor part, one of five vocal lines, is lost and has been reconstructed by the English musicologist Nick Sandon. These works therefore join the growing list of reconstructions performed and recorded by Blue Heron from this neglected repertory, which is preserved in a unique but incomplete set of manuscript partbooks at Peterhouse in Cambridge (England).
Given the unfamiliarity of this material, only an expert could determine whether Sandon’s reconstructions are stylistically appropriate. I was a little suspicious of one or two passages in the anonymous mass in which only the three lowest vocal parts are singing. Here I thought I heard rather more parallel motion than I would expect in these irregularly patterned sections. But it is entirely possible that I misheard this, or that what I did hear has a precedent elsewhere in this repertory. In any case, this beautiful but vocally taxing mass was sung almost flawlessly, with only the barest hints of fatigue detectable during the final section.
Predating the more familiar Elizabethan choral writing of Tallis and Byrd by a generation or more, this is only roughly comparable to what was being writing during the same period on the Continent by Gombert and Clemens—who were performed in Cambridge a year and a half ago by Stile Antico (reviewed here). The English avoided the carefully integrated, seamless counterpoint of the latter, in which all the voices share in the presentation of clearly defined melodic ideas. Rather we hear deliberate heterogeneity, with less regular sharing of melodic motives (what the English called “points”) between the voices. Conventionally worked-out passages may give way to a sudden burst of activity in one part, as when the “treble” (soprano) ascends into long, glowing arches—sung splendidly by Jolle Greenleaf, Sonja Tengblad, and Teresa Wakim—during the “Crucifixus” and the third “Sanctus” acclamation. Rarely are these moments directly related to the meaning of the Latin words to which they are sung.
Metcalfe alluded to this last point in extended remarks that followed the intermission (more on that later). In his written comments, he rightly describes the melodic writing as “quirky, angular, and busy,” although these should not be taken to be negative features of compositions in which beautiful surprises seem to represent a high aesthetic principle. Comparable features characterize the two chants with which the program opened, both taken from the Sarum (Salisbury) rite of medieval England—not the more familiar Gregorian chant repertoire.
The introit “Sacerdotes Dei benedicite” honored St. Augustine of Canterbury—not the 4th-century Augustine of Hippo in north Africa who was one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church, but the Augustine who brought Christianity from Rome to the Anglo-Saxons in 597. As Metcalfe notes, the connection of this chant with the mass is uncertain—thus putting in question the theme of the program as a whole. But it was beautifully performed, as was the chanted Kyrie “Orbis factor” that followed. One of the remarkable features of Blue Heron is that, although most of the thirteen singers heard Saturday night have distinguished careers as solo performers of opera and other genres in both chant and polyphony they blend unselfishly into an ensemble of unparalleled cohesion. Chant, although lacking harmony, is not easy to coordinate. Blue Heron sings it with an expressive freedom that seems effortless but must reflect much rehearsal and a shared understanding.
Much the same goes for the four anonymous mass movements (Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus; English composers of the time rarely set the Kyrie in polyphony). Following medieval tradition, these are constructed on a “cantus firmus” or chant melody sung in long notes. As Metcalfe explains, the placement of this melody chiefly in the “mean” (alto) part is one of several distinctive features that make it impossible to ascribe the work to any known composer. Another is the use of what we would call quick triple time at the end of the Gloria, Credo, and Agnus. A legacy of older medieval ways of structuring polyphony, these climactic closing passages were sung with virtuoso aplomb. I was particularly struck by the ending of the Credo, whose final “Amen” concluded (in typical English fashion of the period) on a series of unexpected but perfectly tuned harmonies.
Hunt’s votive antiphon “Ave Maria, mater Dei” followed the intermission, preceding the last two sections of the mass. Today it might be described as a short motet. There was no need for Metcalfe to apologize for his prefatory comments on the work, which took the form of a brief lecture illustrated by examples drawn from Hunt’s composition. Members of the audience afterward expressed their appreciation for this part of the program, even though Metcalfe promised it would not be a regular part of future concerts.
Arguing that this English repertoire, like its contemporary counterpart on the Continent, was inspired by rhetoric, Metcalfe showed how Hunt constructed his work out of brief sonic ideas invented for each phrase in the text, with the most important phrase receiving the most extended elaboration. Yet I was not convinced that Hunt used dissonances to depict the ideas of sin and death, as would become customary among Continental composers a generation or two later. The work’s sharpest dissonances (the “cross relations” familiar to aficionados of English Renaissance repertoire) seemed to be reserved for the concluding Amen—an extended passage which, although strikingly composed and performed, does not serve any obvious rhetorical purpose. Rather, like corresponding passages in the mass, the lengthy Amen struck me as inspired by purely musical thinking, and perhaps also by the delight in musical sensuality to which Metcalfe also alluded—and to which the Protestant reformers of the period objected vehemently, putting an end to the tradition to which this belonged.
The zeal with which not only music but images and other works of art would soon be destroyed in Reformation England was the subject of a pre-concert lecture by Harvard English professor James Simpson. Simpson focused on Henry VIII’s dismantling of the cult of the saints, especially that of Thomas à Becket, the twelfth-century archbishop of Canterbury who had fatally challenged the authority of another King Henry (Henry II). The most important connection to the evening’s performance, which might have eluded listeners who did not also read Metcalfe’s program note, was that what we were hearing was probably copied into its sole surviving manuscript for performance at Canterbury Cathedral. Those who heard it must rejoice for its survival and for its superb restoration by Sandon and Blue Heron.