The high-Gothic Lindsey Chapel at Emmanuel Church resounded beautifully for Cappella Clausura under the direction of Amelia LeClair in its premiere of Birds of the Psalms by Patricia Van Ness interlaced with movements of the Messe de Nostre Dame, by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377). Saturday’s concert repeated on Sunday afternoon at the Eliot Church, Newton Corner.
Although musically linked in various ways, the sections of the Mass ordinary were never performed in sequence, as so often happens in modern concerts, but always interspersed in the liturgy with proper (seasonal) chants, prayers, and psalms. The group of ten psalm settings heard on Saturday was commissioned by Cappella Clausura from composer Patricia Van Ness, who is currently engaged in a project setting all 150 psalms. LeClair placed Van Ness’s setting of “You are my refuge and my stronghold” (Psalm 91) at the head of the program, and pairs of psalms followed each segment of the Mass. All the psalm texts employ bird imagery, primarily of sheltering wings; in the final setting, a repetition of Psalm 91, Van Ness substituted her own poem, “Beauty Flew to Me,” for the biblical original.
Founded by Amelia LeClair in 2004 to perform music by women composers, Cappella Clausura brought together for Saturday’s performance a well-blended group of 8 female and 8 male singers assembled in various large and smaller groupings. This was ensemble singing at its best: precise tuning with never a wobble and long, beautifully shaped lines, all in keeping with Van Ness’s stated preference for pure octaves and fifths as foundational sonorities, drawing inspiration, she has said, from late medieval and Renaissance polyphony. LeClair’s energetic direction elicited rounded tones from the altos, tenors, and basses, and the purest of high notes from the sopranos. Psalm 55 (“Wings like a dove”) was set for the eight women, four of them soloists. In “Keep Me as the Apple of Your Eye” (Psalm 17), three female and four male soloists joined in gently subdued harmonies. Psalm 57 (“In te confidit anima mea”) was sung in Latin by the eight men, three of them soloists. Here long melismas and harsh dissonances expressed a sense of foreboding and danger. Chromatic coloration conveyed the soul’s thirst in Psalm 63, followed by the exuberant strumming (“zum, zum”) and “Halleluias” of all creation and its creatures in Psalm 148. Psalm 61, scored for women only, juxtaposed the opening “I will dwell in your house forever” with a Latin conclusion: “Protegar in velamento alarum tuarum” (I will be protected under the cover of your wings) displaying Van Ness’s sensitivity to these mellifluous syllables. The full choir returned in Psalm 36 (“How priceless is your love”), in an antiphonal arrangement, the women answering the men phrase by phrase.
Some 650 years after its probable date of composition, the Messe de Nostre Dame remains shrouded in speculation. Comfortably ensconced as a canon at the cathedral of Reims after a career as court secretary to Jean de Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, Machaut was a much-admired poet and composer whose patrons included several members of the French royal house. Heir to the legacy of French trouvère poetry and chivalrous romance as well as didactic narrative poetry from Boethius to the Roman de la Rose, he was also a highly-trained composer who set a substantial number of his own lyric poems to music. Secular and sacred themes are entwined in his songs as in his elaborate motets. The Mass is his only known liturgical work.
Polyphonic settings of individual Mass segments have survived from the early 14th century, but so far as we know, Machaut’s is the first polyphonic setting by a single known composer of the complete Mass ordinary (those parts of the Mass text that remain unchanged throughout the liturgical year). What occasion could have inspired its composition? Rediscovered in the mid-18th century, the Mass was first thought to have been sung at the coronation of Charles V at Reims Cathedral in 1364. Recent research, however, suggests it was composed in the 1360s as part of an endowment to enhance the weekly Saturday devotional service for the Virgin, celebrated at a votive altar in Reims cathedral since 1341. Special funding would have already been required to bring in expert singers who could master its intricate four-part polyphony; an inscription near the altar seems to refer to additional funding for a prayer to be added to the Mass for the repose of the souls of Guillaume and his brother Jean after their deaths. Performance of the Mass in commemoration of the two brothers seems to have continued well into the 15th century.
Although no single cantus firmus unites them, the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite missa est sections of Machaut’s Mass all share a similar compositional technique. A pre-existing chant is placed in the tenor and organized into repeating rhythmic segments within a single melodic strain — the same technique that was employed in 14th-century motets. As Anne Walters Robertson has demonstrated in Guillaume de Machaut and Reims, the borrowed chant melodies in these sections correspond to the liturgy of Reims, and each of them was also associated with services for the Virgin. Partnered with the tenor part is a contratenor of similar range and rhythmic activity. Above the tenor and contratenor, a pair of treble parts move in shorter rhythmic values. These rhythmically lively voices typically feature off-beat syncopations and especially hockets, in which a melodic line is exchanged between two voices, so that as one sounds, the other is silent. The Gloria and Credo, with much longer texts, are written in so-called “simultaneous” style, with all four voices moving at the same rate.
Cappella Clausura performed the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Ite missa est with full choir. Despite the group’s exemplary rhythmic accuracy, precise tuning, and unabashed approach to dissonance, a certain amount of sonic and rhythmic blurring was unavoidable. I would have preferred to hear these movements, and indeed the entire Mass, sung one-to-a-part. A tendency to swell in Kyrie II and Kyrie III on dissonant sonorities approaching an octave-fifth cadence was a mannerism that seemed stylistically out of place. The Gloria featured a six-voice choir, and a solo group of two female and two male singers. This allowed for varied scoring of successive “stanzas,” which are quite clearly demarcated: by a very short textless pattern in the tenor and contratenor, by long held chords on the words “Jesu Christe,” or by a slow progression from a dissonant, doubly sharped sonority to its octave-fifth resolution. Hockets and syncopations in the Amen conveyed rhythmic drive with suitable verve. The Credo is similarly organized into stanzas, with similar rhythmic and harmonic punctuation. Here the basic structure was underlined by assigning alternating stanzas to two solo quartets. Precise enunciation in French-style Latin neatly articulated the rhythm; the entire group joined in the hocketing Amen.
The Sanctus marks a shift from D (Dorian) to F (Lydian) mode, brightening from “minor” to “major” sonorities. After three opening “Sanctus” invocations, the remainder of the movement is based on a rhythmically organized tenor in ten segments, each one punctuated by lively hockets. The overall impression was joyfully dramatic, even climactic. For the final Agnus Dei, LeClair arranged eight singers in two mixed quartets facing each other so as to allow for antiphonal exchange, phrase by phrase. In fact, this arrangement enabled LeClair to withdraw from conducting this movement altogether, a practice many small vocal ensembles have adopted in recent years. After the reprise of the music of Psalm 91, now set to Van Ness’s evocative poetry, the completion of Machaut’s Mass with the traditional dismissal formula Ite missa est. Deo gratias (Go, the Mass is finished. Thanks be to God) was sung by the entire ensemble. Although part of the Mass ordinary from the 4th century on, it was only set polyphonically during the 14th century. Based on a borrowed chant melody and, like the Agnus Dei, set in a repeating tenor rhythmic pattern defined by syncopations and hockets in the upper parts, this was an appropriate ending to a well thought out program, beautifully performed by a top-notch ensemble.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.