Blue Heron—fine musicians blending their talents to create a vital and remarkable unity.
Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks. Performed by Blue Heron. Music Direction by Scott Metcalfe. At St. Cecilia Parish, Boston, MA, October 11 and at First Church in Cambridge, MA, October 13.
By Anthony J. Palmer
Blue Heron’s performance of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks is a perfect meeting of superb scholarship and superb performance. St. Cecilia Parish is a quintessential venue for England’s fifteenth-century repertoire: on Thursday evening, the polyphonic music of John Mason and Nicholas Ludford unfolded with astounding presence and resonance. Polyphonic music, known later as the prima prattica—all voices having equal weight—requires transparency to display the interweaving lines of the music’s texture. This Blue Heron supplied with buoyancy and sensitive musicianship. Scott Metcalfe conducted his 13 singers with few displays of flamboyance and extraneous movement but maintained excellent control of the tempos and flow of the music.
Metcalf continues his research into the music of the Peterhouse trove to offer another installment of the Henrician (assembled during the reign of Henry VIII) manuscripts, which consists of Masses, Magnificats, and other minor works found in the library at Peterhouse, one of the small Cambridge colleges.
The two composers featured on this short but compelling program, Mason and Ludford, were born during the conflicts between York and Lancaster, resulting in a victory at Bosworth, after which Henry VII of Lancaster mounted the throne. His son, Henry VIII, became king in 1509, eventually breaking with Rome over his marriage troubles. He founded the Church of England, resulting in an ongoing struggle between Protestants and Catholics for over a hundred years. Marked by continuing strife and uncertainty, the period triggered changes in liturgy and music practice. Apparently, Thomas Bull, a singer and music copyist, became so nervous he committed to manuscript a large quantity of music. Thus the Peterhouse Partbooks were born.
The concert opened with a paean to the Virgin, composed by John Mason (c. 1480–1548). The text, attributed to Jacopone da Todi, a thirteenth-century Franciscan, is made up of 17 four-line verses, each closing with the refrain of Ave Maria, emphasizing the greeting of the Angel Gabriel and the young maiden, Mary. What Blue Heron provided this evening was a reconstruction of the piece, two of the five parts having been lost. The recomposing/restoration of the music by Nick Sandon (doctoral dissertation from 1983) is a monumental task but seems to have successfully kept the style intact. A changing texture of parts, calculated for contrast and interest, marked the procession of verses. The five parts were assigned to the treble (three female voices), the mean (two female voices and one countertenor), the contratenor (two males), two tenors (two males), and three male voices for the bass.
Looked at critically, I thought that two female voices on the treble would have been sufficient, and for balance three on the countertenor part would have strengthened the middle part more successfully. The latter was the weakest of the five parts. In the extensive program notes by Metcalfe (the source for some of the information noted here), we learn that pitches were less than stable during the English Renaissance period compared to today’s standard pitch of A equaling 440 cycles per second. Still, it can be argued that even today tuning is adjustable, with orchestras tuning slightly above 440 and with studies showing that non-keyed instruments are flexible according to the mode and scale in which they perform. In fact, studies frequently show that pitch varies with orchestras during a complete performance of a longer work.
After a plainchant performance of Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor, a somewhat ordinary piece but vitally performed by alternating male and male/female voices, the Ludford mass, Missa Inclina cor meum, with four traditional sections was offered. The chant having dispensed with the Kyrie, the Ludford mass continued with the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Blue Heron has an especially conscious and sensitive understanding of polyphonic music. Having heard the group on a few occasions, I’ve never experienced a moment where I “see” the score with heavy, vertical bar lines, as I have experienced with less adept performances of this period. Each line exists on an interdependent basis with its own accentual pattern according to the text being sung at the moment. This makes for a flowing, forward moving performance, the sound mimicking an ever continuous wave of sound, an ocean of unlimited rolling energy.
Although St. Cecilia Parish is gracious in its resonance, the space requires a stronger attention to diction. Even following the printed text, it was at times difficult to make out the words. Polyphony of this period need not be over pronounced, but a clean articulation of the consonants would not destroy the flow. That may be the price one pays for the slow decay of sound in the room. My other complaint would be the dominance of the treble part, which then has the effect of being accompanied by the lower voices. The saving grace is the beauty of their voices, their blend, and consistently identical phrasing. This latter virtue is true of all the parts; fine musicians blending their talents to create a vital and remarkable unity.