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“Ockeghem@600,” with Blue Heron

Blue Heron
Liz Linder

Sunday, April 7, 2024
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with Blue Heron, the renowned vocal ensemble continues its multi-year exploration of music by rarely heard 15th-century master Johannes Ockeghem.

Blue Heron
Scott Metcalfe, Artistic Director & fiddle
Margot Rood, cantus
Martin Near, cantus
Owen McIntosh, tenor & countertenor
Jason McStoots, tenor & countertenor
Stefan Reed, tenor & countertenor
Sumner Thompson, tenor & countertenor
Paul Guttry, bassus
David McFerrin, basses

Johannes REGIS Celsitonantis ave genitrix / Abrahe fit promissio
BARBINGANT Au travail suis
Johannes OCKEGHEM Missa Au travail suis, Kyrie & Gloria
ANONYMOUS En atendant vostre venue
OCKEGHEM Credo sine nomine
Firminus CARON Cent mil escuz
OCKEGHEM Missa Au travail suis, Credo, Sanctus, & Agnus Dei
OCKEGHEM Ma maistresse
OCKEGHEM Missa Ma maistresse, Kyrie & Gloria

Recorded on October 14, 2017 at First Church in Cambridge.

Read program notes and translations here.

Find more information about Blue Heron and The Ockeghem@600 Project.

This broadcast is no longer available on demand.

To learn more about Ockeghem and his impact, listen to Brian McCreath's interview with Scott Metcalfe, Artistic Director for Blue Heron, and Sean Gallagher, musicological advisor for Ockeghem@600. Use the audio player above and read the transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT (lightly edited for clarity):

Brian McCreath Johannes Ockeghem is the center of the concert that we're talking about here, but also the center of a lot more. So I want to throw out a little game for you guys, and this is, you know, you probably remember from several years ago that Tony Tommasini and The New York Times did this "Best Composers of All Time" sort of poll, right? "Top Ten Composers." And the results were completely predictable that the top composers are Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, you know, he gets into Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms. These are all composers that are, you know, kind of heard from on a regular basis these days. And yet there's not any early music really on his list. And then, just to add another little twist to this, there's this website called Bach Track, which you may have heard of that, that sort of tracks performances all over the world, every season, and it kind of does a statistical roundup. It's not probably 100% scientifically, you know, rigorous, but it's fun to play around with anyway. And the most popular composers from the last year are, once again, the most expected names: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. And these are indisputably great composers. But someone like Ockeghem also strikes me as someone who just transcended his time. I wonder, Sean, if you can kind of put Ockeghem in a perspective that we might understand in relation to these other composers, these composers that we think of as great now. Was Ockeghem really that kind of a character in his own time?

Sean Gallagher Oh, I think for people who are interested in early music, Ockeghem is a sort of giant figure, certainly comparable to the figures you're talking about from later periods. The fact that he's not a name as well-known generally as Bach or Mozart, it's not really so surprising. Almost everything before Bach is dark. Years ago, someone wrote a book that was about great composers, and they actually had a chapter called "There Were Great Composers Before Bach," [McCreath laughs] as if there was a need to say this!

Ockeghem, though, even for some people who would be interested in some, say, Baroque music before Bach, they might find Ockeghem a little bit remote for their purposes. But the fact is, anyone interested in 15th century music, you can't turn around without bumping into him, not least because he was a central figure in his own positioning. He had a, a position at the French royal court for more than 40 years. Terrific gig, he had. And as a result, his music would have traveled widely. We know it did. Even though he was not the most prolific composer of his time, the music that he wrote circulated widely. And the other type of evidence we have for him is everyone talking about him. You have writers on music both in his lifetime and afterwards saying, "Here are the greatest composers of our time." And invariably it seems to me, Ockeghem's name is first on that list. Later on, he has a reputation in the 16th century as someone who's a bit of a wizard. They don't quite understand his music, but they're fascinated that he could do the things he could do. It's not unlike a view, at certain points, of the music of J.S. Bach. We think of Bach as this universal figure now, but I don't think he's always been seen that way. There were times where he was seen as a composer who wrote music that was, yes, very intelligent, very interesting, but too much like hard work to listen to. And I think the 16th century saw Ockeghem a little bit this way.

Brian McCreath That really helps. That's fantastic context for just understanding someone from a time that we just don't encounter all that often in any venue, whether it's music or any other sort of pursuit. Scott, with all of that in mind, what was it that drew you into really wanting to get into Ockeghem? Was Ockeghem a composer that you encountered in school first, or someone that you encountered as a performer first? And what was it that sort of grabbed your attention about his music?

Scott Metcalfe Well, when I was in school, I was a biology major and a baroque violinist. [McCreath laughs] And I'm pretty sure I had never heard of Ockeghem. At that time, I wasn't doing any Renaissance—even Renaissance music, let alone late Medieval music. But when Blue Heron started out which was in 1999, in our very first season, we did a program that had a bunch of Ockeghem on it. And I had encountered Ockeghem before, working with an amateur choir Convivium Musicum which I directed for 11 years. So I knew about Ockeghem and the few pieces that I knew were indisputably wonderful. Very difficult, challenging musically, hard to understand in certain ways, but very compelling.

So he's always been there, and we had done quite a lot of Ockeghem through the years: songs and motets and, I don't know, maybe half a dozen years ago or so we did a program that was entirely Ockeghem and it was excerpts of Masses. We did a complete Mass, ordinary, but with movements from different Mass cycles and a number of songs and a motet or two. And at some point when we were performing that, I remember sitting and listening to the singers perform a piece and I thought, you know, “This is really some of the greatest music ever, ever written.” Everything on this program is compelling and engaging, and I would like to do every note that this guy left to us before I die. And as Sean said, he's not the most prolific composer from the 15th century, so it's quite conceivable. There's about a dozen Masses, there's about two dozen songs, and there are four motets. So one could imagine over the course of a handful of seasons, doing everything without killing yourself. So that's how this idea was born. And we're now about halfway through the project and beginning to think, well, what are we going to do when this is over? I know, we'll just do it again! [McCreath laughs] We'll do them all again. We'll just start over.

Brian McCreath Yeah, so this is a seven-season cycle that you've constructed that, yes, it takes on everything that is known from Ockeghem. Are we fairly confident that we have most of what he wrote or all of it? Or do we believe that there's some big chunk that hasn't been discovered or is lost forever?

Scott Metcalfe I think we definitely do not have all of it. It's inevitable that there's been a piece or two lost.

Brian McCreath Yeah.

Scott Metcalfe It's not a lot that we know of. There's an eminent theorist from the later 15th century who mentions a Mass which we don't have. That probably existed and was probably by asking Ockeghem based on the reliability of this particular witness. Other than that, I don't know if there are any mentions of any specific pieces which are credibly missing.

Sean Gallagher "Credibly" being the key word.

Brian McCreath Right, right. Well, there's always—yeah in music—

Scott Metcalfe —So, we're close.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Yeah.

Sean Gallagher And fortunately there have been a couple of pieces—well one at least, maybe a couple—that we've been able to credibly add to the canon of Ockeghem's works. And that's a very nice thing to be able to do.

Brian McCreath So, with all that in mind, Sean, we have some idea of having most of his music available to us. But his story, this guy, how much do we know about him and his life? I guess my rough reading of things is that here's a guy born in the countryside of what's now Belgium, and he finds himself, as you said, for 40 years, working for the king of France. What—is that kind of remark—It feels like that's got to be remarkable. And what does it tell us about Ockeghem as a person?

Sean Gallagher It's interesting. It's both remarkable and not. What we know about him: for a long time, there's been debate about even when he was born, though there's something of a consensus now that he was born around 1420. And it is true, he is from a little town called Saint-Ghislain in what is now Belgium. They seem to be very proud of him. There is a Place d'Ockeghem there and a little statue, and it's very nice. But it is a very small town. He makes his way, by the time he was probably in his early to mid-20s, to the cathedral in Antwerp, where he's a singer for a year, just a kind of run-of-the-mill singer. Within a couple of years he's made it to France—we don't know how—to the court of the Bourbon Duke, and he spends a couple of years there. And then suddenly, around 1450, he makes it to the French royal court and very quickly ascends through the ranks from being simply a singer to being the first chaplain, the first singer. Then he gets appointed to a wonderful position—at least it was a very lucrative position—as the Treasurer of the Abbey of St. Martin in the city of Tours. This was a royal abbey and it was a very lucrative position, and it meant that Ockeghem probably was a fairly wealthy man for much of his life.

One thing that's unusual about his career compared to other 15th century composers is he doesn't seem to travel much. They were a pretty peripatetic lot. They tended to move around a lot. Most of them were from a very small region of what is now northernmost France and Belgium. But many of them traveled south over the Alps into Italy to work at Italian courts, Papal court, Milan and other cities. He doesn't seem to have ever done that particular jaunt south. All of his professional work is in the north. There are a couple of trips. He goes to Spain at one point with the king, but generally he's very centrally located and routed. That's unusual. But then again, if you've got a job with the French king, perhaps you don't need to be going anywhere else. [McCreath laughs] But he stays there until the 1490s. He dies in 1497. So he lived a good, long life.

Brian McCreath And in terms of any other documentation that tells us something about his character and who we might have encountered if we had shown up at the court, do we find someone who's kind of ruthlessly ambitious as a career trajectory like that might suggest? Or do we find someone who is so exceptionally talented that there was no other place for him but to simply rocket up through the ranks like that? Do we even know the difference between those based on what we know right now?

Sean Gallagher Biographical documents are always slightly scary to deal with. People describe other people, and we have to wonder why they're describing them the way they do, not just how they describe them, but why they're describing them. We have a visitor from Italy who goes to the French royal court in the 1470s and he describes Ockeghem, and you would think that he is the living end , not just as a musician, but he's an honorable, virtuous person. He's even attractive. Everything about him is superlative. Who knows how much of that really reflects anything?

There are a few things we can feel confident about. He was a singer. That's very important. All these composers of this period worked as singers. And Ockeghem, we're told, was a bass. And it's perhaps related to the fact that a lot of his music explores low registers in a way that's not that common for the time. Maybe he was writing for himself. He certainly was writing for his own singers at the French court that, at least initially, that would have been his aim. His personality would be almost impossible to extract from the documents we have. But sometimes looking at a piece of music or especially a whole corpus of music, you begin to feel like you can extract something of the character of the composer. And this is someone who, seems to me—whatever else he had in his character was, he liked to dig down into an idea, to pursue an idea and see how far one could take it. Or perhaps, in a way that really is comparable to J.S. Bach, an idea [is like] "Here's a musical concept. What if I organized an entire work around this musical concept? This is something that is very similar about these two composers.

Brian McCreath And that distinguishes him from other composers at the time. Other composers weren't really looking at things quite in the same way.

Sean Gallagher Not that we can see. And certainly he develops a reputation for being someone who could do this. That's part of his being a wizard is—

Brian McCreath Okay, yeah!

Sean Gallagher —for the 16th century.

Brian McCreath Yeah, sure. Scott, when you began to organize those thoughts about every note that Ockeghem wrote that we know of and performing all of that, you mapped out seven seasons, and it's really specific. I mean, you have two programs per season during this whole thing, you're as you say about halfway through at this point. And tell me about the ease or difficulty of—or just organizing that as a concept. Not the logistical organizations of working with your singers or all of that, but just from an on-paper scheduling point of view, does this music sort of lay out as easily as it appears to be from your program that I'm looking at? I was like, wow, that's really neatly organized. Was it easy or was it a little trickier to do that than it appears?

Scott Metcalfe It wasn't so difficult in the big picture. As I said, there are about a dozen Masses and they are the long form works from this period. So we, as Sean and I, laid out the whole 13-14 programs and it was pretty easy to say, well, if we're going to cover all the Masses, we need to distribute more or less one Mass per program over the course of the whole project. And we know very little about chronology for Ockeghem's works, but we have a sense that there's a couple of works that are on the early side and there are some that look like they're later, more mature or more... sort of twilight compositions, or at least that the work of a really fully, confidently mature musician who's exploring every possibility at his disposal. And with Ockeghem, by this point that means everything is on the table. And then once the Masses were sort of distributed, "Oh, there's a handful of Masses based on songs. They sort of can go in a pocket. There are these highly speculative works. The prolation Mass, which is a long set of double canons at many different intervals. Very, extremely technically, very challenging. There's a mode which can be sung in any mode or on any tone, so those go next season. And there's the Requiem, you know, the pieces which are more about mortality and last things.".

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah.

Scott Metcalfe So we made a kind of curve and then have sorted the songs and the motets in among the Masses.

Brian McCreath So in terms of this particular program, this is one of those ones that there is a song and then there's a Mass based on the song, if I'm reading this correctly, "Ma maistresse."

Scott Metcalfe Yeah, two songs, actually. Two songs and two Masses.

Brian McCreath Oh okay, okay. So tell me more about how this particular program fits into that long arc that you and Sean mapped out for these seven years.

Scott Metcalfe Well, right in the middle of the project, there are a number of Masses which are derived in some way from a song. And those songs are one song. "Ma maistresse" is actually by Ockeghem himself and then he wrote a Mass of which we have a Kyrie and a Gloria. He wrote a Mass based on that song. Also on this program, there's the song "Au travail suis," which is probably by a composer who we know only as Barbingant. It's also ascribed to Ockeghem in a source, in one source, but it's probably by Barbingant. And then Ockeghem also wrote a Mass on the song "Au travail suis," or based on it. And the ways that Ockeghem derived his musical material from the song vary from Mass to Mass. He's got a whole host of different technical tools which can be applied, but in some way they're related. In the case of "Ma maistresse," I think the connections are very, very audible throughout (I suppose throughout "Au travail suis" as well). It's pretty clear. Once you know the song, you can hear it throughout the Mass.

Brian McCreath And just to clarify a bit of a definitional thing here, when we say a song, what we're talking about is a single piece that's not very long and has a theme that is or is not religious? Or does that even matter when we're talking about a song?

Scott Metcalfe The text, they're all French songs. Yes, they're short, short forms. They're in one of the three sort of "fixed" forms of French poetry, which became the fixed forms of French songs in the 14th and 15th centuries. So they're shortish, lyric texts from the world of courtly love. That's the setting. They're often, although not exclusively, about a frustrated love, love which is frustrated in some way. It's usually the woman is not available or the man has gone away. I mean, there are also ones in which a woman speaks. And they tend to praise the beloved with a heap of superlatives. Those kind of terms, very formal, somewhat stereotyped as superlatives, can be quite easily applied by allegory to divine figures as well, especially Mary. If we're talking about an idealized woman, Mary is the idealized woman par excellence, right? She is the absolute top. So it's easy to see, if we're talking about a woman like "Ma maistresse" who has qualities which are beyond compare, that by allegory can be applied to the Mother of God, and that way you can get a song into a Mass. And this is part of the game that composers are playing towards the, well, in the second half of the of the 15th century, all over Europe.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And so not only does that theme kind of transfer more or less seamlessly, but then you're also saying that the music, the actual musical content gets transferred to the Mass as well from the song.

Scott Metcalfe It's the musical material that gets transferred.

Brian McCreath Yeah.

Scott Metcalfe And the musical material should evoke or presumably evokes the sentiments of the original French text, which are then applied allegorically. In a in a liturgical setting.

Brian McCreath Yeah. This idea of writing another composer's work into your own work which, on the surface, might look like plagiarism but actually this is kind of honoring the other composer as a sort of tribute, am I right? And, if I am, was that kind of a big deal? Is that kind of what these composers did? They would sort of say, "I really love your work. I'm saying so because I actually just used some of it in my work."

Sean Gallagher At this distance, historically, it would be difficult to really sort out what the intentions were.

Brian McCreath Okay.

Sean Gallagher Whether it really was an attempt to pay homage to another composer, I don't know. I think of composers as being very opportunistic in all ages, and that's not really a criticism. They need to start somewhere. And finding a good lick in another piece, or an idea that sparks one's imagination, I can't help but think that that process has been at play forever, in one way or another. In the case of these songs and certain other types of pieces from this period, we certainly do have music that seems to allude to other pieces or to quote other pieces. This is a particularly rich nexus here.

Brian McCreath In this particular program?

Sean Gallagher Yes, with this "Ma maistresse" and "Au travail suis," the way that they are related and in the further Mass. So it's an interesting example, but not a unique one. The purpose of it, I would say, is very hard to pinpoint. But it is a process, the quoting of songs, one another's songs. That's something that goes all the way back to the 14th century, in these French poets, and we might look to poetic traditions in part. And here we could talk about maybe someone paying homage. Someone writes a poem, you write a poem. I like your poem. But as a way both of paying respect to you, but also to show my inventiveness, I take the first line of your poem and write a whole different poem. And that really is a part of the poetic tradition. And I wonder if that's at play in some way with this.

Brian McCreath Yeah. I mean, people still do that. I mean, like a hip hop artists remixed country songs in their own way, and it's sort of like, "We love this. Now we're going to make it our own," right? Same idea. But beyond what we might think about their intentions and their cleverness and everything, tell me, Sean: the other composers Regis and there's an anonymous piece here, and Caron (if I'm saying that correctly), what do those composers, by having them on the program with Ockeghem, what do we then learn more about Ockeghem by their presence?

Sean Gallagher A number of things, I'd say. Again, we have writers, one in particular who was very well informed in the late 15th century, and he writes treatises that are in some ways very technical about certain aspects of music, but he also writes more generally about esthetics and all kinds of things. And he's one of the ones who keeps mentioning these composers. "These are the great composers of our time," and it's always the same 4 or 5 guys: Ockeghem, a man named Antoine Busnois, Regis, Caron and Faugues. And all five of these composers, the four beyond Ockeghem, figure in these programs in different ways. And that's because they make sense. They, in some cases, certainly with the case of Busnois, he knew Ockeghem, almost certainly. We can place them in the same city, in the same institution for a few years. There might have even been a teacher-student relationship.

In other cases, it's the surviving sources put these composers together. The main manuscript source for the works that the Masses of Ockeghem—it's a single manuscript copied in the Low Countries shortly after 1500. It has a whole section that's devoted almost exclusively to Masses by Ockeghem and then it has a corpus of motets. These are medium length Latin texted works. And there there's a comparable emphasis on the works of Regis, who was a specialist in writing big, rather ceremonial motets. And so here we have this wonderful, beautifully illuminated manuscript—it's a monument of its age, in a way—that might have even been intended as a memorial volume commemorating these two composers who died, from what we can tell, about a year apart. And so certainly focusing on the two of them makes sense. Also, they're terrific pieces. And so as Scott came to know some of them, his eyes lit up as they often do when we're doing this stuff. [McCreath chuckles] And they pair beautifully. Not infrequently, the programs begin with one of these large Regis motets, and it always makes a big impression.

Brian McCreath Yeah!

Sean Gallagher But that said, for all the things that it shares with should we call the lingua franca of Ockeghem's time, these are very different musical personalities. Each of these guys I was mentioning, they're very distinct personalities. Regis is concerned with big, sonorous effects and extraordinary sonority. Ockegem is [interested in] the complexity of lines and the way they interweave, so the aural effect is very different. Hearing them side by side contributes, for listeners now especially, I would say, it helps create a reservoir of musical experience that allows you to differentiate things. For someone who knows no 18th century music, Mozart and Haydn sound the same. The more you know one or the other, they come into sharp focus as very different personalities. We can do something like that with these programs year after year doing this.

Scott Metcalfe It really does require the long scheme, because if you hear one Regis motet next to Ockeghem Mass and that's your entire knowledge of those composers, you will think they're pretty much the same in the same way that Haydn and Mozart are indistinguishable to listeners who come at them for the first time. But over the course of 13, 14 programs, we, and I think the audience, will be able to develop a better sense of how they're different and how different they are. And this has got to contribute to our understanding of the past, that we're not looking at a bunch of stick figures, but real, real human beings who are all highly differentiated from each other. Real living individuals, humans. We often look at the past as a sort of shadow play, you know, very simplistic, with a very simplistic view. "Oh, everyone was super religious and they all believed exactly the same thing." Can't possibly be correct. "Oh, sacred music and secular music are absolutely divided," you know, "They have nothing to do with one another." That's simply incorrect. I mean, on the face of it, [it's] a gross oversimplification of the past. So I hope that we can complicate and enrich everyone's understanding of our past as well.

Scott Metcalfe So part of the program, Sean, involves some music that actually nobody had ever known about before, that's very recently discovered. Can you tell me more about this anonymous song? Where it comes from and also, importantly, how that also relates to Ockeghem and why it has a role in this concert.

Scott Metcalfe Well, just to back up a little bit, we have about 1,500 French-texted songs from the period between about 1420 and 1480. That's a lot of music. And no doubt some of it's lost. How much is a matter of debate? I tend to think not that many songs. But it does happen every once in a while that something shows up. And this was a major find. Someone showed up. A colleague of mine who teaches in Belgium meets a man who has a book that he seems to have purchased, you know, at an auction.

Brian McCreath And when was this?

Sean Gallagher Maybe—

Scott Metcalfe 2014.

Sean Gallagher So very—[Brian laughs in astonishment]

Brian McCreath Just a few years ago.

Sean Gallagher And here we have a small, really very beautiful 15th century book in its original binding, and it contains secular songs, these love poems largely with music. 50 of them all together. And it turned out the 12 of them had never been seen before. Unfortunately, there are no composers names attached to any of them, so we don't know who composed them. Some of us are eagerly going through them and trying to see if we can spot any of our old friends [Scott chuckles] among these composed, anonymous pieces. But for the time being, what we have are, in many cases, excellent songs, and the one that's done on this program is one that Scott eagle eyed and said, "This one's really a first-rate piece," and he's absolutely right. It's a beautiful piece of music. Absolutely in the style of this, should we say, third quarter of the 15th century, when Ockeghem seems to have been most active. This manuscript is probably from around this period or slightly later, but only probably a decade or two. It's very much music of his environment. And to have it here—I suppose it was the North American premiere of this and maybe, who knows, a world premiere of this particular 15th century song, but more importantly from my perspective is that it's an astonishingly beautiful song that they did a beautiful performance of.

Brian McCreath And I mean, this is exactly the kind of thing that I would think a musicologist goes into the business to do, is like—

Sean Gallagher If only it happened more often. [McCreath laughs]

Brian McCreath Among the rewards of being a musicologist, occasionally you run across something that is just from out of the blue. Well, I mean, do we know where this fellow came across this songbook and why it kind of came to light in 2014?

Sean Gallagher I'm sure there are people who know. My sense is that it was sold at an auction house for probably less money than they now think they should have sold it. [McCreath laughs] I can tell you this: it is been purchased and now lives in an institute devoted to the study of old music in Leuven, in Belgium, and it is, as a result, known as the Leuven Chansonnier. And we're all studying it now and there are conferences. People are doing work on it, so... There will be more to say about it in the future but this was a good start.

Scott Metcalfe This particular song is actually particularly connected to him in a way that we've been talking about earlier. It's a French poem and the fourth line of it quotes the first line of a song by Ockeghem. So, and that's probably the direction it went. It's not certain. That's not a unique occurrence, but when I was looking through the music in the songbook and reading through the text and came across that line, I thought, "Ah!" So there's a very direct connection to Ockeghem. That's why it's on this... We only have really started performing these pieces with this season. I mean, the manuscript's been put up digitally. It's on the web. I'm making an edition with the people in Leuven of the unique songs, and in preparing for that, then I saw this textural snippet which is the same.

Brian McCreath And in its place on the program comes right before this sort of like "orphan" Credo, I think it is. Am I right about that? That this Credo that follows that song by Ockeghem—the Credo by Ockeghem that follows the song, to be clear—is probably a part of a Mass, but is a standalone.

Scott Metcalfe It's probably just a standalone. There is a practice of writing these single Credos and that is probably what this is. It probably doesn't belong to a Mass.

Brian McCreath And so there's not really a musical relationship between the anonymous song and the Credo. But it contextualizes the world of Ockeghem and other people that were creating music around him.

Scott Metcalfe Yeah, and it's a great song, as Sean said. We should underline that, although there's a large amount of scholarship and study that is the foundation of this entire project, it's a concert. You know, we are actually in the entertainment business, in Blue Heron. [Metcalfe and Gallagher chuckle] And the point is that people should come and have an enjoyable evening listening to music which is amusing, heartbreaking, profound, intellectually stimulating, everything. So some of these songs are quite funny. There's the one that opens the second half, "Cent mil escuz." This is a song probably by Caron. I think Sean is pretty certain it is by Caron. It's also attributed to someone else. It's probably Caron. This is a song about, "Oh, what would I do if only I had $100,000? Well, I'd do a whole handful of things. Like, among other things, I'd hire a bunch of singers. Yeah, that's it! And then we'd go have a drink!" And it's a funny song. I hope that comes across, in the performance, but, you know, it's not. Again, there's not one affect of the 15th century. They had everything, just as we do.

Brian McCreath And important to remember that [McCreath chuckles] that it is a performance. As you say, it's show business. So thank you for pulling us out of the dusty books and into the reality of what we're actually listening to, which is wonderful. Thanks a lot.

Scott Metcalfe Because what the dusty books show us is, [they] help us to imagine the reality of the past and to be in a direct kind of emotional communication with the past and its culture and its art.

Brian McCreath Tell me, Scott, with Ockeghem as the center of this project, what are their particular challenges to the singers? I mean, you've said [McCreath chuckles] it's not so easy and that Ockeghem is, among these guys, the more complex, the more intricate. How does that play into actually getting together, rehearsing and putting these things together as a concert?

Scott Metcalfe I think that Ockeghem is the hardest of the hard of the 15th century in terms of the just the technical challenge that it poses. There are all sorts of questions. What pitch level are we meant to sing it at? We know very, very little about that from the 15th century. And, very closely tied to that as the question of scoring. What voice types do you put on what parts? Obviously those are two sides of the same coin. And we know really very little. I mean, we do know we have a list of the singers at a St. Martin where Ockeghem worked, so we know with some certainty that they were all adult men. So for Ockeghem, I think that's the general constraints, but there's so many questions: did they sing polyphony one to a part or two to a part? Well, there's pretty strong evidence—or I would say, there's suggestive evidence on both sides of that. There's probably not much to be said for singing with more than two on a part. But the difference between one or two on the part is huge. And it's a project that Blue Heron could certainly if not dreamed about undertaking until relatively recently because of the technical difficulty of the music. And I think it's.... Nobody sings this music growing up. I'd never heard of it. Singers don't sing it in college. It's not part of our training. I mean, it's barely part of the larger canon of Western music. [McCreath chuckles]

Brian McCreath Yeah, you get a paragraph in Music history 101.

Scott Metcalfe That's right!

Brian McCreath And that's kind of where you've read Ockeghem.

Scott Metcalfe And that's about the third week of the music history survey. [McCreath laughs] And before you know it, it's Monteverdi.

Sean Gallagher We're working on that. [Metcalfe and McCreath laugh]

Brian McCreath That's right! Sean's courses are different, but anyway...

Scott Metcalfe So it takes a long time to develop a really comprehensive understanding of style and of the performance practice, questions, opportunities, demands. Even knowing what the questions are, I think, takes a lot of time.

Brian McCreath And I imagine you've noticed in your core singers that, as the years are going through this project, that more and more every program you get started with Ockeghem, more of those questions and more importantly more the answers are coming preloaded.

Scott Metcalfe We have a little better idea. But I have to say, Ockeghem also has a tendency to throw different problems at you with every single piece. I've especially notice this in the Masses. Everyone seems to be exploring different technical questions which also have performance ramifications, so—

Brian McCreath And so that's a difficulty, but also kind of exciting.

Scott Metcalfe Oh, it's super exciting, yeah. This whole project is making us all better musicians, I mean, because of the extremely high quality of the music and the technical demands that it places on everybody. So it's incredibly satisfying for us all to see if we can rise to the challenge posed by the music.

Brian McCreath So aside from Blue Heron sort of making a mark among many other marks Blue Heron has made over the years, among them is making a mark with Ockeghem but to the external world. But internally for Blue Heron, there's a development of the ensemble that might not have come through almost any other composer.

Scott Metcalfe Absolutely, yeah. We're learning a lot and loving every moment of it. And I think the audience is there with us. Every program seems to have a slightly larger group of people. And there's a quality of attention we're beginning to feel in the room that is very acute. People are listening very carefully and, with Ockeghem, you need to. And you need to hear the piece about 20 times. [McCreath laughs] In the same way, if you heard, oh, pick any masterpiece by Bach and think about hearing it the first time. You wouldn't get it.

Brian McCreath Well, I bet this happens with any kind of project like this, with an ensemble, in the best sense. When it's done well, when it's really flying, I mean, it brings to mind some of the other music we have on the air with the Boston Symphony, the fact that their Shostakovich symphonies are now in their fourth season. You sense, every time one comes up, that the orchestra has shown up with more of that language built in.

Scott Metcalfe Yeah, of course.

Brian McCreath And the audience is even more ready for what comes next, in that realm.

Scott Metcalfe Right. Because everyone is learning. I mean, with Ockeghem, we're starting from a place which is not particularly informed because there's been—it's done so little. It is possible—I wouldn't assert this with any real confidence, but it is possible that we're the first ensemble to actually sing every note in concert in a series. That's probably true in North America. And it might be true in Europe as well. There's a complete recording of all the sacred music, but I don't think that they did all the songs.

Sean Gallagher No.

Scott Metcalfe There's a complete recording of the songs from the 1980s. But that's a long time.

Sean Gallagher But I would say that there are, among groups to do this kind of music, a number of recordings and performances that are done. If there are not more performances of Ockeghem done, I would say it's only because singers look at it and realize, "Oh goodness, this is not something we just read off, however talented we might be. We're not just going to read this often and record it in ten minutes." And it's not just the difficulty of it and I want to stress this.

Scott Metcalfe Yeah.

Sean Gallagher We're dealing with music of extraordinary finesse and a level of polish and very finely wrought polyphony. Any music that fits those descriptions is going to require a real commitment to do. And so certainly for someone like myself who's so invested in this music, working with Scott, working with Blue Heron, having the opportunity to do this over a period of years has been an enormous pleasure, among other things, but also enormously beneficial for my own thinking and I think for anyone who's coming to these concerts. There really is an opportunity now to enter into this world in a way that's not possible with a one off program.

Brian McCreath You've anticipated my last question, Sean. Well done. [Sean chuckles] Which is simply that, from your musicologist perspective, you've been involved in this music for years and years, and now through Blue Heron you're actually—I mean, not that you hadn't heard Ockeghem in concert, off course you have. But in this sort of concentrated, organized way, has it changed your angle and perspective on Ockeghem in ways that you hadn't expected when you got involved with it?

Sean Gallagher Yes. I mean, absolutely. In multiple ways, not least, some of the things that I thought would be very challenging for singers turned out not to be and vice versa. Certain things that on paper, I thought, "Well, that's fair enough," but it turns out ,when you actually try to do it with real human beings, it's very tricky. There's that aspect of it. There's certainly also the sense of... Studying a piece of music, either on a page or (I'm a pianist so I play through a lot of the stuff at the piano), it's a different sonic environment. It's a different way of experiencing it. Sitting in on rehearsals with Blue Heron, watching them do this, consulting with Scott, asking questions, making suggestions—some of which I have to say he's kind enough to accept. [McCreath laughs] And he's polite about ignoring the other ones in a very, very nice way as is certainly his right—that whole process has been something that not just as a scholar, but as a musician has, has changed me without any question. It's been a great privilege, as I say, all along, doing this. And I look forward to the second half. And as Scott says, when we're done, let's start over and do it again.

Brian McCreath Who knows what'll happen then. Sean Gallagher and Scott Metcalfe, thanks so much for coming in to talk with me about all this. I feel like we could talk all day, but thanks for now.

Scott Metcalfe We could but thank you. [Metcalfe chuckles]

Sean Gallagher Thank you.