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Blue Heron, Masters of Polyphony


Like a well-seasoned string quartet, Blue Heron simply gets better and better. Now celebrating its 21st season, the ensemble of highly-skilled singers specializes in late medieval and Renaissance music, much of it previously unknown, Under Music Director Scott Metcalfe, they have embarked on a number of ambitious projects, notably the restoration of a repertory of 16th-century music for Canterbury Cathedral and the ongoing performance of the complete sacred and secular works of the 15th-century Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem. Four years ago Blue Heron and Professor Jessie Ann Owens won the Noah Greenberg award in support of another project: a study culminating in the first complete recording of Cipriano de Rore’s 1542 book of five-voice madrigals. The concert on Friday evening, November 1st at District Hall on Northern Avenue, Boston, celebrated the release of the 2-CD set.

Born in Flanders and recently arrived in Venice to seek his musical fortune, Cipriano (the Italianized form of his name) was 27 or 28 when he published his set of 20 Madrigals for Five Voices (I madrigali a cinque voci) with the well-known Venetian printer Girolamo Scotto. Madrigals — usually settings of a single poetic stanza in no pre-ordained form — appeared in 16th-century printed collections comprising either the works of several known or anonymous composers or devoted to the works of a single composer. Rather than a score of superimposed parts, each singer read from a separate partbook containing only his or her own music. In program notes and an introductory talk, Owens presented the “programmatic” scenario that she believes guided both Rore’s choice of texts and the ordering of their settings. Several innovations mark the contents of Rore’s book. First of all, a turn away from shorter poems in a lighter style, usually set for four voices in a relatively simple texture, toward more serious texts, particularly those by Petrarch and his imitators. Of the 20 madrigals in Rore’s set, 16 are sonnets, of which 12 are by Petrarch. The two ballate that frame the collection turn out to be by the priest, poet, and novelist Giovanni Brevio. Owens believes Brevio collaborated with Rore in selecting and ordering the texts in his book. In Owens’s reading, the poetic sequence of 16 sonnets depicts the emotional progress of a lover whose beloved has been taken from him. A mood of frustrated desire and profound sadness in the eight sonnets following the opening ballata turns to resignation and acceptance in the second group of eight. Furthermore, the sequence of sonnet settings is arranged modally, shifting halfway through from “minor” to “major.” By Rore’s time, the “minor” modes, Dorian on D (or transposed to G with a B-flat signature) and Phrygian on E had begun to be adopted in polyphony to represent sadness, while the “major” modes on F and G were associated with a brighter mood. The ordering in Scotto’s 1542 print, which must have been specified by Rore and Brevio, places four sonnet settings in modes 1 and 2 at the head of the sonnet sequence, followed by a second group of four in modes 3 and 4. Pivoting to a brighter mood, the last eight sonnet settings include four on F and four on G. Later editions of the 1542 collection by other Venetian printers abandoned this over-arching formal plan, which Professor Owens hailed as “unprecedented in Renaissance music.”

Although handouts supplied complete texts and translations, Scott Metcalfe’s dramatic readings in English, followed by readings in Italian by Mario Moroni, certainly awakened our senses. Blue Heron’s six singers — soprano Margot Rood and countertenor Martin Near alternating on treble parts, tenors Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, and Sumner Thompson, and bass Paul Guttry — sang in perfect attunement with one another as they exchanged exquisite details of phrasing and dynamics and executed shifting rhythmic patterns with apparent ease. The opening ballata set an anguished tone: “I sang while I burned from the living flame/of my fire . . . “ Complex polyphony of interweaving voices in staggered imitative entries gave way to a declamatory outburst in the final, repeated line: “Oh! peace has no place in the hearts of lovers.” The first sonnet of the collection, Petrarch’s famous “Hor che’l ciel et la terra e ‘l vento taci” (Now that the heavens and the earth and the winds are silent), opened quietly, but a dramatic shift appeared already in the second quatrain with the declamation of the words “Veggio, penso, ardo, piango” (I wake, I think, I burn, I weep). Originally written by Francesco Maria Molta to mark the impending departure of Pope Paul III’s niece Vittoria Farnese from Rome, “Altiero sasso” (Proud rock) fits neatly into the sequence of sonnets on abandonment, ending climactically with the line “Cinti d’horor al suo partir vi lassi” (Shall leave you wrapt in horror at her departure). At the center of the sonnet sequence, “Tu piangi, et quella per qui fai tal pianto/Ne ride, et ride ‘l ciel che l’ha raccolta” (You weep, and she for whom you weep/laughs, and heaven laughs, which has received her) by Antonio Tebaldeo, pivots from weeping to acceptance, as the tonality pivots from “minor” Phrygian on E to “major” Lydian on F. Text-generated motives drawing on the rich imagery in Petrarch’s “Quel sempre acerbo et honorato giorno” (That forever cruel and honored day) enhanced the rhythmic vitality of Rore’s setting. In the final sonnet, Petrarch’s “Amor, che vedi ogni pensiero aperto” (Love, you who see plainly my every thought) the bereaved lover declares himself content with the restrained desire that remains to him.

Blue Heron (Liz Linder photo)

Blue Heron took inspiration for Saturday afternoon’s concert from a Book of Hours. Such prayer books for the private devotions of literate lay people, usually centered on Mary as intercessor. At the appropriate Shrine of Our Lady of Good Voyage on Seaport Boulevard, the ensemble opened with a grand motet “Celsetonantis ave genitrix sublimis Olympi” (Hail, mother of the High Thunderer of lofty Heaven) by Johannes Regis (ca. 1425-1496). Soprano Margot Rood, countertenor Martin Near, tenor Sumner Thompson, and bass Steven Hrycelak sang the learned humanistic text in alternating duets, trios, and full-voiced passages, while a text from Genesis citing Abraham’s promise was sung as a cantus firmus by tenor Jason McStoots. “Permanent vierge, plus digne que nesune” (Permanent virgin, more worthy than any other), a motet-chanson by Regis’s near contemporary Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420-1497) presents a French text in rondeau form, describing the appearance of Mary in heaven, sung by countertenor Martin Near against florid counterpoint by two other voices; the two remaining voices sang two different chant melodies in Latin as a double cantus firmus. “Flos florum” (Flower of flowers), a sacred cantilena by Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1397-1474), on the other hand, employs the typical three-voice texture of 15th-century secular song. Margot Rood, accompanied by Owen McIntosh and Steven Hrycelak, delivered her ornate soprano line with lilting clarity. All eight singers joined in Ockeghem’s “Ave Maria” for four equal parts without cantus firmus. One of the most widely known among 15th-century chansons. “Je ne vis onques la pareille/de vous, ma gracieuse dame” (I have never seen the equal/of you, my gracious lady) by Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400-1460) is couched in the language of courtly love, yet  the text can also be interpreted as a devotional poem addressed to Mary. Countertenor Martin Near and tenor Owen McIntosh were paired in a supple duet typical of 15th-century song, with bass Paul Guttry filling out the rhythmic and harmonic texture. It was not uncommon in the Renaissance for composers to reuse elements from secular songs in music for the Ordinary of the Mass, expanding on the symbolic associations of the original. Two generations younger than Binchois, the Burgundian composer Alexander Agricola (ca. 1450-1506) drew on both the superius and the tenor of “Je ne vis onques la pareille” in constructing a four-voice Credo setting; tenor Jason McStoots joined Near, McIntosh, and Guttry as an equal partner in a skillful performance of this densely polyphonic movement. By contrast, in the simple and moving five-voice setting of the 13th-century Franciscan text “Stabat mater dolorosa/Iuxta crucem lacrimosa” (The grieving mother stood beside the cross, weeping) by Agricola’s contemporary Gaspar van Weerbeke’s, ten rhymed stanzas were held together by the plainchant “Vidi speciosam” (I beheld the beautiful one) sung as a cantus firmus. Like “Je ne vis onques la pareille,” Ockeghem’s beautiful bergerette “Ma maistresse et ma plus grant amye” (My lady and my greatest friend), also suggests a Marian interpretation. Ockeghem reworked the song’s evocative top part, with its easily recognizable “motto” motive of falling thirds, in his four-voice Missa Ma Maistresse, of which only a Kyrie and a Gloria survive. All eight singers participated in this program’s final demonstration of Blue Heron’s mastery of intricate Renaissance polyphony.

Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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