Desiring, suffering, waiting, plagued by Danger and Refusal but buoyed by Hope: such was the lot of the lover in the rarefied atmosphere depicted in the 13th-century narrative poem Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose). Widely read and commented upon, the rhetoric and imagery of the Roman still permeated the language of French lyric poetry in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Once looked upon as decadent, imitative, and devoid of inspiration, this poetry is now admired for the richness and subtlety of its linguistic play, in which imitation is a game of both rivalry and emulation. So too, the musical settings of these poems, in an ars subtilior (more subtle) style that seems to cultivate wayward melody and above all, rhythmic complexity to a degree not known again until the 20th century, have proved daunting to all but the most accomplished contemporary performers.
In an evening devoted to French courtly songs of the late 14th century, a group of musicians from the Blue Heron ensemble led by Scott Metcalfe demonstrated just how captivatingly expressive this music can be. “Songs about Hope: Esperance and Amors in 14th-century song,” which this reviewer attended on April 29th at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Watertown, repeated at the Congregational Church of Weston on April 30th and at Old South Church, Boston, on May 1st.
An intricate web of citation and allusion — references that could have been ferreted out by courtly musicians and their audiences — linked together the songs chosen for the program, as detailed in the excellent program notes by Scott Metcalfe. “En amer a douce vie” (To be in love is a sweet life), is the first line of a ballade within a well-known love-narrative by the foremost poet-composer of the 14th century, Guillaume de Machaut, who died in 1377. The same words turn up a generation later embedded in the second line of an anonymous rondeau, “Esperance qui en mon cuer s’embat / Sentir me fait d’amer la doulce vie.” This in turn gave rise to a rondeau that begins “En attendant d’amer la douce vie” (While awaiting the sweet life of love), attributed to the otherwise unknown Johannes Galiot; to the ballade “En attendant, Esperance conforte” by Jacob de Senleches; and to another ballade, “En atendant souffrir m’estuet grief payne” by Phillipus de Caserta that also contains musical references to Senleches’s ballade. “Souffrir m’estuet” was the motto of the francophile Bernabò Visconti of Milan, by the way, while “Esperance” was adopted by the French royal family. This interlinked repertory, although French-texted, was international: minstrels from northern and southern France travelled regularly to Flanders as well as to Aragon and northern Italy, carrying their songs with them. [Footnote: Citation and allusion, both textual and musical, across this repertory are the subject of probing studies by Yolanda Plumley and an ongoing database at the University of Exeter, England.]
A top voice and an untexted tenor part typically form the harmonic and contrapuntal framework of late medieval and early Renaissance polyphony. To this was often added a contratenor in a range similar to that of the tenor, and sometimes also a fourth part in the treble range, called the triplum. Only the top voice carried a text, leading modern performers who first engaged with this repertory to assume the other parts were instrumental, and to bring all sorts of medieval and even Near Eastern instruments into their ensembles. Researchers in the 1980’s, however, pointed to a lack of documentary evidence pointing to the performance of these songs by singers and instrumentalists together. Untexted parts should simply be vocalized, resulting in a fairly homogenous timbre across all parts rather than the timbral variety contributed by instruments. Blue Heron drew on both approaches: in the opening song, “Je languis d’amere mort” (I languish in bitter agony), Owen McIntosh, a high tenor, sang the texted part, Jason McStoots vocalized on the tenor and countertenor Martin Near on the triplum, with Debra Nagy’s douçaine, a soft-toned double-reed instrument, taking the contratenor. Machaut’s virelai “Je vivroie liement” (I would live happily), a dance song for voice alone, was heard first sung by Owen McIntosh with both ringing high notes and exquisite pianissimo, then in an equally virtuosic improvised elaboration by Debra Nagy, recorder, Charles Weaver, lute, and Scott Metcalfe, medieval fiddle. Jason McStoots was the soloist in the anonymous rondeau “Quiconques veult d’amours joïr” (Whoever wishes to enjoy love), while Owen McIntosh vocalized the triplum and douçaine and fiddle took the two lower parts. Part of a rondeau’s charm is the suspensive effect of repeated “ouvert” (open) cadences at the ends of five out of eight lines, contrasting with only three closed cadences, an effect enhanced by McStoots’s unhurried pacing that allowed us to savor the gently floating syncopations and melismatic elaborations that concluded each line. In Machaut’s seminal ballade “En amer a douce vie,” Nagy’s recorder on the triplum provided a foil to Martin Near’s beautifully modulated countertenor on the texted part, while Jason McStoots vocalized the tenor and the contratenor was supplied by Metcalfe on the fiddle. All three singers demonstrated a mastery of Middle French diction and ars subtilior rhythm that enabled them to concentrate on the beauty of the poetic language and the expressivity of its melodic settings in a way that sounded—paradoxically—free, natural, and thoroughly convincing, no small feat. I came away wanting to hear more.
In addition to collaborating with the singers, Metcalfe, Weaver, and Nagy also performed a few instrumental pieces. These included a notated elaboration of a French song from an Italian manuscript containing a large number of such pieces, and a rousing performance of one of only a few notated medieval dance tunes to have survived.