Early Music Group Champions Superb Ockeghem Rarities

The Boston area’s Blue Heron vocal ensemble continued its long-term project of performing all the works of Johannes Ockeghem. The project is to conclude in 2020-21 to mark the Flemish composer’s 600th birth year. (Photos: Kathy Wittman)
By Marvin J. Ward

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Fresh from winning the 2018 Gramophone Award in the early music category last month, the first non-European ensemble to do so in its 41-year history, Boston area-based Blue Heron launched its 20th season Oct. 13 with its eighth offering in another long-term project, begun in 2015: Ockeghem@600, which will lead to future recordings of all the Flemish composer’s songs and motets.

Under director Scott Metcalfe, the concert at the ensemble’s regular venue, First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, featured Johannes Ockeghem’s (c. 1420-1497) Missa Cuiusvis toni (Mass in Any Tone), a daring and intense composition that had never before and has never since been attempted, and which requires some explanation.

Director Scott Metcalfe accompanied two Ockeghem songs on Celtic harp.

Sean Gallagher of the New England Conservatory, the project’s adviser, provided commentary with some demonstrations at a piano keyboard during his pre-concert talk, and Metcalfe also spoke before the performance, with demonstrations by members of the ensemble, using “Happy Birthday” (to you/Johannes) as the tune, each tone sung by different groups of the eight singers. This was a “speculative” piece, the composer exploring what the possibilities of transformation of the notes by mere tone shifts were, comparable to what J. S. Bach was doing in the Goldberg Variations, the Musical Offering, and the Art of the Fugue in the early 18th century.

A tone is different from a key, and also from a mode, although it is closer to the latter, and scoring was not yet established with lines and spaces having today’s designated notes/pitches (E-G-B-D-F and F-A-C-E, respectively); bar lines also do not yet exist. The process is different from transposition as well, and, because of the existence of a semi-tone from mi to fa in the scale: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la, performing the notes in a different tone produces an entirely different impression and sound for the listener: They seem to be completely different melodies. There are six rather than seven different notes – a hexachord; the octave scale is not yet established.

The opening notes of Ockeghem’s ‘Missa Cuiusvis toni.’ (Courtesy Blue Heron)

The performance included repeats of some movements or parts thereof in two – ut (our do) and mi – of the three potential tones in which the notes can be sung, with different quartets performing the different tones. (Re is the third tone; “any” is actually a misnomer.) The initial Kyrie was performed in all three at the outset as a further demonstration. Its opening notes were reproduced on the title page of the program book, so the diamond- and rectangular-shaped notes, which determine their duration, and the absence of a clef could be seen.

Around this work were added others by Ockeghem and anonymous composers, including a motet of unknown authorship with two texts: “Ave rosa speciose” and “Beata mater“– a “mash-up.” Also offered were two Ockeghem songs: “Se vostre cuer eslongne moy a tort” and a conflation of “S’elle m’amera” and “Petite Camusecte,” both with harp (Celtic/medieval) accompaniment supplied by Metcalfe, surrounding two anonymous works: “Escu d’ennuy, semé de plours” and “Donnez l’aumosne, chiere dame.”

Director Scott Metcalfe also wrote ‘excellent’ program notes.

These last are from a recently discovered small 15th-century manuscript, in immaculate condition, but simple, without any decoration or illustration/illumination, which perhaps explains how it went unnoticed for so long, called the Leuven chansonnier because it was examined and analyzed by scholars at that university. It contains 50 songs, 49 in French, and one in Latin. Of these, 38 were known from other manuscripts, but 12 appear nowhere else (like the Missa Cuiusvis toni, which exists in only one, the Chigi Codex, the manuscript containing all Ockeghem’s Masses). Think how easily all this fascinating and gorgeous music could have been entirely lost. One of these songs was sung, likely for the first time since the 15th century, in its U.S. premiere; the other was getting its second modern performance.

Mash-ups require two groups simultaneously singing different melodies and texts, so they are challenging to follow, even with texts (provided in the program book) before your eyes and a familiarity with Middle French, which I have. The two anonymous songs were particularly interesting for me: The first involved heraldic vocabulary (escu, meaning shield, for example); the second, which has an especially lovely melody, is a plea by a pilgrim on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques/Peregrinatio Compostellana for money from an aristocratic lady that struck me as the 15th-century equivalent of homeless and impoverished individuals asking for money from vehicle drivers at intersections.

Considerable scholarship and careful planning are behind these programs. Metcalfe’s notes in the program book are always excellent, as are Gallagher’s talks. The performances are always superb, both musically and textually with their accurate Middle French diction and pronunciation of the Latin.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December 2009.