Blue Heron at the First Church Congregational in Cambridge on Saturday achieved triumphs for the ensemble of gifted and versatile singers, director Scott Metcalfe, and for the composer Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420-1497. This was the third concert in the group’s “Ockeghem@600” series, a project exploring the composer’s complete works as we near (approximately) the 600th anniversary of his birth. Born in Flanders, Ockeghem served the French court from the 1450s until his death, and was much admired by his contemporaries both for his composing skills and for his beautiful voice, as well as for his generous and pious character. Sometimes more discussed than heard, his music has been the focus of increasing interest by performers in recent years.
The idea of composing the five movements of the Mass Ordinary—the unvarying texts of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, as opposed to the Proper sections that vary with the liturgical occasion—as a unified cycle in which all movements employ the same borrowed musical material seems to have reached the continent from England during the second quarter of the15th century. Ockeghem’s Missa L’homme armé (The Armed Man), the focus of Saturday’s program, was one of the earliest of some 40 Mass ordinary cycles based on this rousing tune of unknown origin. Just who the “armed man” might be, who raises alarm and incites citizens to put on armor, has been the subject of intense speculation. Whether he is St. Michael, the armed archangel weighing the souls of the dead depicted in paintings by Roger Van der Weyden and Hans Memling, as suggested by Professor Sean Gallagher in his pre-concert talk, or Christ himself, engaged in cosmic battle with evil, as Scott Metcalfe believes, both the tune and its symbolism had wide appeal from the mid-15th to the late 16th century.
For the most part, Ockeghem placed the bouncy tune, with its repeated notes and open fifths, in the tenor, where it could usually be heard quite clearly, particularly if sung to the French text rather than to the Latin of the liturgy. Around this cantus firmus he wove intricate yet always sweet-sounding and rhythmically flexible counterpoint. The Blue Heron singers—Martin Near (countertenor), Laura Pudwell (mezzo), Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, and Mark Sprinkle (tenors), Sumner Thompson (baritone), Paul Guttry (bass-baritone), and Steven Hrycelak (bass)—are all accomplished soloists with varied expertise ranging from medieval to contemporary repertories. They sang without conductor but with clear evidence of carefully rehearsed coordination in which individual voices sang both against and with one another, the whole burnished to a glorious and rhythmically compelling soundscape. After the relative calm of the opening Kyrie, the Gloria was dramatic, with two- and three-voiced sections playing against passages for all four voices. The Credo brought a new texture, with the cantus firmus transposed down a fifth into the bass range. Here the clarity of the inner voices came to the fore. In the Sanctus the cantus firmus return to the tenor position, dropping out in the Pleni sunt coeli and Benedictus sections. The cantus firmus returned in the Osanna but, in marked contrast to the other movements, now moved twice as slowly as the other voices instead of keeping pace with them. Transposition of the cantus firmus down an octave brought additional solemnity to the Agnus Dei. In the final statement, the tune was again slowed down, and heard against only one or two voices at a time until the final Dona nobis pacem brought the Mass to a sonorous four-voice conclusion.
Such was the popularity of the “L’homme armé” tune among 15th-century composers that, in addition to numerous cyclic Masses, a number of them composed songs combining newly composed melodies and texts with the borrowed melody. Just to be sure we got it under our skin, Saturday’s concert started off with a rendition of the song on its own. Then we heard an anonymous comic song for three voices inciting one Master Symon (actually a singer in the Burgundian chapel) to go off to fight “the Turk” (a very real threat at the time), superimposed on the “L’homme armé” tune in the tenor, with a third voice also singing the borrowed text. Ockeghem’s love song, “D’un autre amer,” was sung beautifully by Laura Pudwell, Jason McStoots and Sumner Thompson vocalizing on the un-texted lower parts. Ockeghem’s younger contemporary, Philippe Basiron, set only the four-line refrain of “D’un autre amer,” combining it with “L’homme armé” in the tenor. On the upper part, tenor Owen McIntosh soared smoothly into the countertenor range.
In its liturgical context, a Mass ordinary cycle was of course never heard as an uninterrupted sequence of movements, like a symphony. The five sections were interspersed with prayers, sections from the Propers, motets, and even, as Scott Metcalfe emphasized in his program notes, secular songs. This practice was apparently common enough in the 15th and 16th centuries to be complained about, yet reflective of the medieval and Renaissance mingling of the sacred and the secular in allegory and metaphor. Following the Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo of Ockeghem’s Mass we heard a setting by his contemporary, Johannes Regis, of the sequence for the feast of Corpus Christi by Thomas Aquinas, a chant tenor quoting the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John. This five-voice setting, sung one on a part by an all-male group, was one of the highlights of the evening.
After intermission, Basiron’s four-voice Salve regina, a densely polyphonic motet, and three more secular songs preceded Ockeghem’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Though couched in the language of courtly love, Ockeghem’s “Quant de vous seul je pers la veue” may actually express devotion to Christ. Martin Near, Jason McStoots, and Sumner Thompson handled the interweaving lines with adroit sensitivity. In “Vostre bruit et vostre grant fame,” by Ockeghem’s celebrated predecessor Guillaume Dufay, Martin Near and Sumner Thompson, singing the cantus and tenor, were joined by Scott Metcalfe playing the contratenor on the vielle, a copy of a five-string medieval fiddle. Metcalfe’s 15th-century harp, inspired by those seen in Memling’s paintings, was a wonderful foil to the duetting by Laura Pudwell and Owen McIntosh in Antoine Busnoys’s “C’est bien malheur qui me queurt seure,” an ironic take on the misfortunes of love.
Blue Heron’s Ockeghem project comes with a clear sense of mission: to better acquaint us with a still too little-known composer, and to place his works, both sacred and secular, within the intellectual and artistic context of their time. Their carefully thought out performances—precise yet supple, rhythmically alive, and joyful—made for an intensely pleasurable listening experience. The handsomely produced program book included excellent notes by Scott Metcalfe, complete texts and translations, and useful information on the instruments, on Ockeghem’s music, on his life and times, and even on the spelling of his name. Sean Gallagher’s pre-concert talk set the stage for the 15th-century cyclic Mass and for the mingling of sacred and secular in this well-conceived program.