Blue Heron Explores French Secular Songs From The 15th Century

Blue Heron performed songs from the Leuven Chansonnier during its Feb. 13 virtual concert, available on the ensemble’s website.

DIGITAL REVIEW – The Boston-based Blue Heron ensemble’s virtual concert on Feb. 13, titled “A Blue Heron Valentine: French Songs II: the Next Generation,” featured 15th-century French secular songs found in the Leuven Chansonnier, discovered in 2014 but compiled/created in France’s Loire Valley around 1470-1475. It is now housed in Park Abbey, near Leuven, which has a close connection with the Catholic University of Leuven, founded in 1425.

Two of its 50 anonymous songs, “Escu d’ennuy, semé de plours” and “Donnez l’aumosne, chiere dame,” were performed in a concert in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 13, 2018, that I covered for CVNA, and a third, “En attendant vostre venue,” is included on Vol. 1 (track 3) of Blue Heron’s recording of the complete Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, issued in 2018. Of the 50, 12 are not found in any other source; the composers of a number of them, as well as the authors of some texts, can be determined because the songs appear in other manuscripts that have attributions.

A page from the Leuven Chansonnier

The concert was a virtual event, therefore without a printed program book. But you can find it (and those of all prior concerts, including the first of this series given on Oct. 17, 2020) in PDF format here. The concert was pre-recorded Jan. 24-26 at the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, Mass., venue of another concert I covered featuring music by Cipriano de Rore.

Blue Heron’s director, Scott Metcalfe, writes in the program book note: “This program [titled “The course of true love never did run smooth”] arranges songs from the Leuven Chansonnier (and a few related pieces from contemporary sources) into a cycle exploring the panoply of emotions experienced by the lover: bedazzlement, loyal devotion, suspicion, betrayal, despair, nostalgia, and hope.”

Chansonniers are not like other music scores: They are not meant to be sung from beginning to end, but rather for songs to be selected from them for a designed performance. The Chansonniers are also not public performance books, but rather intimate ones for private leisurely perusal and meditative thought. They are not entirely unlike the small Books of Hours, which were for private devotions in residential chapels, not public churches or cathedrals.

Author Jane Alden gave a talk before the concert.

The concert was preceded by an illustrated talk by Jane Alden, author of Songs, Scribes, and Society (New York: Oxford University Press). The book covers the first five Loire Valley Chansonniers discovered, with references to other related manuscripts. All six are small and hand-held, but the Leuven is the smallest: 120 x 85 mm. The Laborde, the first discovered in 1857, now in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC (106 songs), measures 126 x 92 mm; the Dijon (160 songs) is 173 x 125 mm; the Copenhagen (34 songs) is 170 x 116; the largest, the Nivelle de la Chaussée (66 songs), now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, is 180 x 125; and the Wolfenbüttel (56 songs) is 148 x 104. This information is culled from the website and is given to provide a perspective for the Leuven, for which there are some images in the program book. Some of those have lost leaves; the Leuven has not.

The chansonniers were not commissioned by royalty or nobles but by upper middle-class educated professionals, such as secretaries, treasurers, and notaries who worked for them, some of whom were later ennobled, and whose income permitted them to acquire properties and/or build manoirs or châteaux. Some of them are lavishly illustrated, although the Leuven’s art is limited to decorated initials.

These songs were intended to entertain the listeners, not impress them, as opera arias of the Baroque era were. The clever and apt colloquial modern English translations of their first lines, which also serve here as titles, set the tone for this; for example, “You gotta treat me right” for “Si vous voulez que je vous ame”; “I heard it through the grapevine” for “Par Malle Bouche la cruelle”; and “A penny of your love, my lady” for “Donnez l’aumosne, ma chiere dame,” repeated on this concert to close the program, using the tape of the previous performance. Their translations in the full sung texts are more literal, but the poems often contain wordplays.

The frontispiece of the Chansonnier cordiforme by Jean de Montchenu, from the 1470s in Savoie

The program included solos by Kim Leeds, Sophie Michaux, and Sonja DuToit Tengblad, and duets by Michael Barrett and Reginald Mobley, Pamela Dellal and Michaux, and Jason McStoots and Daniela Tošić, all accompanied by instruments: Metcalfe played harp or fiddle, Laura Jeppeson fiddle or rebec, and Charles Weaver lute, except in the closing a cappella quartet: Paul Guttry, Owen McIntosh, McStoots, and Margot Rood. Two songs were instrumental only. Texts and translations were projected as left and right subtitles. A backdrop image featured the dame (with one golden and one black wing) pierced by an arrow shot by cloud-riding Cupid from the frontispiece of the Chansonnier cordiforme (heart-shaped) by Jean de Montchenu, from the 1470s in Savoie, with other illustrations from that manuscript projected, making the recital a poetry, music, and art event.

The Blue Heron artists impressed as well as entertained; the whole was enthralling.