Blue Heron’s “Christmas in 15th-century France and Burgundy” began in darkness and progressed to a burst of New Year’s joy. Rather than offering perennial favorites, director Scott Metcalfe and a roster of eleven singers and three instrumentalists treated us to a varied selection of motets, hymns, and courtly songs by composers from northern France and present-day Belgium. The program we heard on Friday evening at the First Church, Congregational in Cambridge will repeat on Saturday, December 17th at 2:30 pm and 8 pm.
Opening with the church plunged in darkness, a group of male singers intoned the chant antiphon “O clavis David et sceptrum domus Israel” (O key of David and scepter of the house of Israel). As explained in Metcalfe’s informative printed notes, this is one of seven “O antiphons” sung to the same melody on the last seven days of the Advent season leading up to Christmas Eve; an eighth antiphon, “O virgo virginum” for Christmas Eve, was often added to the group. Following the antiphon, ten singers joined in the performance of the five-voice motet, “Factor orbis,” by Jakob Obrecht (1457/8-1505), choirmaster at Bruges and Antwerp and composer of numerous Masses. Obrecht’s text, a conglomerate of texts for Advent as well as Epiphany and Lent, includes both “O clavis David” and “O virgo virginum.” Dense imitative counterpoint alternated with supple duets and trios and chordal homophony, including celebratory exclamations of “Noe, noe!” (Noel, noel). Further intensity came with the piling up of shorter note values at the end of each of the two major sections. None of this complexity seemed to faze Metcalfe or the Blue Heron singers, who navigated smoothly from one musical texture to another with utmost skill and conviction. The singing of the “O virgo virginum” antiphon by the treble voices introduced the motet of the same name by Obrecht’s contemporary, Josquin Desprez (1455-1521), who quoted the entire chant melody in the top voice, now in a new rhythmic guise. Performing one-on-a-part and without conductor, the six-voice ensemble demonstrated adroitly the clarity of Josquin’s varied combinations of high and low voices.
A generation older than Obrecht and Josquin, Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1397-1474) was trained as a choirboy at Cambrai Cathedral; his peripatetic career took him to Florence, Rome, the papal chapel, the duchy of Savoy, and finally back to Cambrai. In his setting of the Advent hymn “Conditor alme siderum” (O bountiful creator of the stars), each stanza of chant alternated with a harmonized stanza — sung by Martin Near, Owen McIntosh, and Michael Barrett — featuring an ornamented version of the melody in the top voice. Dufay’s Christmas sequence “Letabundus exultet fidelis chorus” (Full of joy, let the chorus of the faithful exult), sung after intermission, followed a similar alternatim scheme employing two separate vocal trios. The French composer Antoine Brumel (ca. 1460-ca. 1512) set the brief text “Ave Maria gratia dei plena per secula” (Hail Mary, full of the grace of God forever) as a devotional song whose flexibly interweaving lines were delivered with supple phrasing by Daniela Tošić, Jennifer Ashe, and Pamela Dellal. Following the opening Advent series, a massive Christmas motet by Johannes Regis (ca. 1425-ca. 1496) closed the first half of the concert in grandiose style. Although his compositions were widely admired throughout Europe, Regis apparently spent all of his working life at Soignies in present-day Belgium. “O admirabile commercium/Verbum caro factum est” (O wondrous exchange/The Word was made flesh) incorporates various liturgical and popular melodies associated with Christmas, all woven around the Christmas text “Verbum caro” as a cantus firmus. The second section was a joyful invocation to the Virgin; the third began with the Christmas introit “Puer natus est nobis” (Unto us a child is born) and concluded with a surprisingly gentle lullaby. The five-voice ensemble consisted of Martin Near, Pamela Dellal, Jason McStoots, Sumner Thompson, and Cameron Beauchamp, their individual voices beautifully matched and stylistically coordinated. After the intermission, another large-scale motet completed the Christmas section. Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490-1562) was born in Belgium (possibly in Bruges), studied in Paris, moved to Italy, served members of the d’Este family in Rome and Ferrara, and was hired in 1527 as maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice, where he remained for the rest of his life. Embedded in the seven-voice texture of his Christmas sequence on the Virgin birth “Praeter rerum seriem” (Surpassing the natural order) is a three-part canon for the middle voices, flanked by an alto pair and a baritone-bass pair in shifting imitative combinations: another display of ensemble virtuosity for the one-on-a-part ensemble of seven singers.
The New Year’s section turned to secular song for inspiration. At the Valois courts of France and Burgundy, the customary New Year’s exchange of precious gifts might also include a beautifully thought out and artfully inscribed love poem. French composer Nicolas Grenon (ca. 1375-1456) was active in France, Burgundy, and Rome. Although instrumentation was never specified in the manuscripts, the treble-dominated style of Grenon’s virelai lent itself well to the performance by the clear-voiced soprano Daniela Tošić with the accompaniment of two plucked string instruments— Scott Metcalfe, harp, and Charles Weaver, lute—in the middle and tenor ranges. A rondeau by Guillaume Malbecque (ca. 1400-1465) took another approach: in an instrumental introduction, Laura Jeppesen provided an artfully improvised ornamentation of the top part on her rebec (a shoulder-held bowed string instrument) with Metcalfe and Weaver accompanying. The rondeau stanzas were sung by Jennifer Ashe, Owen McIntosh, and Stefan Reed, alternately unaccompanied or with further instrumental participation. The more serious tone of “Dame excellent” (Excellent lady), a New Year’s greeting by the late 14th-century composer Baude Cordier, may have suggested its greater rhythmic complexity: in many measures, duple and triple rhythms were performed simultaneously. Johannes Tinctoris, ca.1430–35-?1511), an influential writer on music as well as an accomplished composer, singer and instrumentalist, provided another vehicle for Laura Jeppesen’s virtuosity by adding a top part to the tenor of a famous song by an older composer, Hayne van Ghizeghem, A sweetly melodious rondeau by Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400-1460) was followed by a rollicking New Year’s song, also in rondeau form, by his contemporary Guillaume Dufay. The dance-like character of “Ce jour de l’an” (On this New Year’s Day) was underscored by its four-square regular phrases (avoided in motets and in most courtly song). Opening with a fanfare motive outlining a major triad in imitation by all three parts, Pamela Dellal, Jason McStoots, and Michael Barrett, were joined by Laura Jeppesen, Scott Metcalfe, and Charles Weaver in this joyous salute.
The final works returned to the theme of Christmas celebration. Johannes Ciconia, born in Liège around 1370, was one of the earliest Franco-Flemish composers to make his career in Italy, where he died in 1412. In his Gloria Spiritus et alme, an ancient trope celebrating the birth of Jesus is woven into the text of the Gloria, thereby increasing its relevance to Masses in honor of the Virgin. In this layered four-voice structure, the two top voices (Jason McStoots and Mark Sprinkle) engaged in short imitations that clearly highlighted the troped passages, while the lower voices (Paul Guttry and Cameron Beauchamp) proceeded in longer notes. The long Amen featured extensive “hockets,” involving all four voices in jagged exchanges of short notes and rests that produced their own sense of rhythmic urgency. The final motet, Brumel’s elaborately constructed five-voice “Nato canunt omnia Domino pie agmina” (The whole host sings piously to the new-born Lord), in which ten singers participated, two on a part, was a glorious salute to the Christmas celebration.
Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron, and the collaborating instrumentalists are to be congratulated on this unusual and ambitious program. That it worked so well has to do with its focus on the familiar themes of Advent, Christmas, and New Year, and on a group of composers from a well-defined area of northern Europe who knew, collaborated with, and emulated one another. Most of all, the ensemble skills of the performers—all of them soloists versed in other repertories—showed them to be as well attuned to 15th-century polyphony as if they had been born to it.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.