Blue Heron: Si douce a oir — “The Sweet Sound of Medieval Song”
Seldom is novelty integrated throughout the entirety of an evening’s program. And who would suspect to find such a case in a concert of medieval repertoire? On Wednesday evening, Brandeis University’s Berlin Chapel hosted the world-renowned vocal ensemble and medieval specialists, Blue Heron, for a carefully selected program of sacred and secular polyphony. Not only was the concert impressive for the performers’ virtuosity, but even more, it represented the culmination of centuries of uninterrupted research, debate, and reflection: a perpetual symposium among theorists, scribes, scholars, and performers.
Brandeis professor Karen Desmond summoned several of the most innovative scholars of medieval musicology to the university to present recent research and participate in round-table discussions on “Texture, Surface, and Line: The Listener’s Experience of Late Medieval Music.” Throughout, Blue Heron provided live examples of the performative potentialities discussed, as the scholars discussed newly discovered manuscripts or new realizations of ambiguous scribal phenomena. At the heart of musicological debate lies the question of how the temporally and geographically local performers, composers, and audiences understood music and what might be done to expose their motivations for making music at all. The two full days of musicological discussion, workshopping, and demonstrations culminated in Blue Heron concert.
As an attendant of both the seminar and the final performance, perhaps my reception of the latter was unrealistically stoked. Most 21st-century listeners are unaware of the mystery that remains in the reading and transcribing of medieval notation. In fact, even many performers are equally unaware and unfortunately undiscerning in their interpretations and selection of edited scores from which to sing. Discrepancies abound, but the search for truth is well attended. Margaret Bent, David Catalunya, Karen Desmond, Lawrence Earp, Jared Hartt, Jesse Rodin, Anna Stone, and Ann Zayaruznaya shared some of their most recent discoveries with the singers, testing new theories and receiving feedback throughout the seminar. Beyond their ability to spontaneously adjust interpretations of repertoire as prompted by the scholars, it was Blue Heron’s enthusiasm and critical receptivity of the ideas that seemed most admirable. These performers clearly value authenticity just as much as the musicologists, and their unique ability to make audible the well-informed and tirelessly researched speculations brought together this week enabled a seamless bond between practice and performance and is sure to summate an unparalleled product in the concert hall, church, and recording studio.
The scholarship will always be developing; the attentive interpretations will be perpetually transformed; but any performance stands distinct. A decision must be made: a definitive product is shared with each audience. Yes, Blue Heron was receptive and flexible throughout the workshops, they participated as scholars in the discussions and debates, they presented a spectrum of possibilities; but on Wednesday night, they owned their own performance. A performance is effective only when it is convincing. The scholarship is unfathomably interesting, but theories are not proven. Blue Heron, the performers, were therefore tasked to occupy a completely separate mode of being. In this, they were absolutely successful.
The repertoire for this performance reflected the scholarship that the seminar explored: Specifically, music from the late 14th and early 15th centuries, right around the ambiguous interchange between what are referred to as ars vetus and ars nova. Participants approached this case study with the general objective of learning how to listen to medieval polyphony as if from a more local perspective. Blue Heron’s program on Wednesday night aptly featured compositions attributed to Guillaume Machaut, with one newly discovered and reconstructed piece highlighting the concert. As the performers mentioned, it may have been 700 years since anyone heard these sounds. Though this was an actual premiere of sorts, all of the selections felt similarly new, as both the performers and the audience had just been conditioned by the scholarship to listen to this music with new (or perhaps very old) ears.
I imagine that the show would have been entirely rewarding even had I not attended the preceding workshops. This is a group that merits attention from any listener, medieval enthusiast on not. Their ultimate product is an act of novelty, their attention is entirely in the present. I felt personally connected with, sung to, entertained, informed, and enriched. In return, I am deeply grateful. It should be recognized when an ensemble makes such deep investment in their repertoire. This event was unique in its union with the seminar, but Blue Heron will remain near at hand. The group regularly performs in the Boston area, and I encourage concertgoers to recognize their efforts. The model of musicianship they represent is a worthy standard.
Eric Hollander is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University. His research is focused on musical realizations of poetic texts and oral traditions.
Musical excitement continues at Brandeis in November. Music Unites Us, Brandeis’ global music initiative, has invited renowned guests to campus for workshops, demonstrations, and performances Nov. 11-16. The final performance will be on the 16th at 8PM in Slosberg Recital Hall, including performances of music remembering and re-voicing the songs of comfort women of occupied countries in East Asia, 1932-45. See BMInt’s feature HERE.