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Blue Heron's "Christmas in Medieval England"

The vocal ensemble Blue Heron stands outside, leaning against stone pillars.
Liz Linder
Blue Heron

December 24, 2023
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with Blue Heron, the acclaimed vocal ensemble performs carols, plainchant, hymns, and mass settings in one holiday concert. In short, be transported to the Christmases of the 1440s by an ensemble described as "one of the Boston music community’s indispensables” by The Boston Globe.

Blue Heron
Scott Metcalfe, Artistic Director
Kim Leeds, Clare McNamara, Sophie Michaux, cantus
Michael Barrett, Corey Dalton Hart, Jason McStoots, Sumner Thompson, tenor & contratenor
Paul Guttry, Charles Weaver, bassus
Laura Jeppesen, rebec
Charles Weaver, lute
Scott Metcalfe, harp

13th-century French - Veni, veni, Emanuel 
Arundel manuscripts - Angelus ad virginem   
Cotton fragments (14th-century) - Gabriel fram Heven-King
Sarum plainchant - Antiphon, Alma redemptoris mater
Cambridge manuscripts Add. 5943 (c. 1400) - Ave Maria I say
Trinity Roll (early 15th-century) - Hayl Mary, ful of grace
Leonel Power - Gloria (Old Hall manuscript, no. 21)
Trinity Roll Ther is no rose of swych vertu
Leonel Power - Antiphon, Ibo michi ad montem mirre
Sarum plainchant - Hymn for first Vespers of the Nativity on Christmas Eve, Veni redemptor gencium
Sarum plainchant - Introit for the Mass at Cock-Crow on Christmas Day, Dominus dixit ad me   
Selden manuscript (15th-century) - Nowel! Owt of your slepe aryse
Pycard, Old Hall manuscript - Gloria
Edmundus, Cambridge manuscript - Thys yol the beste red that y kan
Thys yol
anonymous English, c. 1440 - Missa Veterem hominem, Sanctus
Egerton manuscript (15th-century) - Ave rex angelorum   
Cambridge manuscript - Lolay lolay
anonymous English, c. 1440 - Missa Veterem hominem, Agnus dei
Trinity Roll - Nowel syng we bothe al and som   

This concert was recorded at First Church in Cambridge Congregational on Dec. 16, 2023, and is no longer available on demand.

See the entire program and notes for this concert.

To learn more and see upcoming concerts and events, visit Blue Heron.

For a preview with Blue Heron's Artistic Director, Scott Metcalfe, hear the interview using the player above and the transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT (lightly edited for clarity):

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath with Scott Metcalfe here at WCRB. Scott, thanks so much for talking about Blue Heron's "Christmas in Medieval England."

Scott Metcalfe Thank you for having me. I'm very, very pleased to be here.

Brian McCreath So this program deals with music that is all of 600 years old, a lot of it even more than 600 years old. And I think that, as I read what you write about this music, one phrase really jumped out at me, which is that this music would have been enjoyed by "the educated cleric and the uneducated congregant alike." And I want to just see if you can unpack who would have been listening to this music 600 years ago, in, obviously, slightly different form, in complete mass forms and other ways. But who would have heard the music on this program originally?

Scott Metcalfe Some of this answer is a bit of a guess because we don't really know specifically about what we would now call audiences, but of course they weren't audiences in the 15th century. None of this music was performed in a concert. So the program combines music for liturgy. There are movements from the ordinary of the mass, and we've picked a mass that's particularly appropriate to the Christmas season because of the plainchant that it's based on, and it has a really celebratory feel to it as well. It's an anonymous mass from the mid-15th century.

That piece would have been heard in church during the Christmas season, maybe around Epiphany, and it would have been heard primarily by the clerics who were there to participate in the service and attend, and by nobles or wealthy people who had come as well, and, depending on the situation, possibly by congregants from a congregation. Nowadays we think of church as a place where there's the staff and the congregation. It's not so clear in the 15th century that that's the kind of church that this music happened in, because there are a lot of church settings in the 15th century where there really isn't a congregation. The church is set up in order to perform the rituals which are required for the church to do. And so there isn't really a congregation.

Here, though, you know, on Christmas, I think we can imagine this music happening in all sorts of different situations. It could have been heard by all different strata of society. And that's also true with some of the other sort of para-liturgical music that we're doing on the program, these motets, which are possibly for church services, possibly to go around services, and those would have been in a similar sort of situation.

Then, we also have this repertoire of carols, which is a uniquely English thing, and their texts are in English, often with a lot of Latin or French sprinkled in. They're macaronic, meaning that they mix languages. That's a tip off that they're being written by educated people, people who knew the Latin, people who spoke French as well. And so there's a kind of play of language as well as the music.

But some of these pieces will be familiar. I think they've entered our Christmas carol repertoire as well. And they're not then heard in church possibly. I think it's again possible that in certain kinds of church services, they could have replaced parts of the liturgy, as sort of tropes on the liturgy. But I think they're also equally appropriate, now as then, for a bunch of friends to sing around a fire or after dinner.

Brian McCreath I'm really interested that you said carols are uniquely English because that touches on another thought that I had about this program, which is, what is it that makes this English? Is it simply the sources that you went to to find this music, or is there some musical aspect of it that is more English than, say, Flemish or Spanish or anything like that? I mean, what is it about this program and this music that is uniquely English?

Scott Metcalfe In the 15th century, England was the fount of a sort of new sound. And this is the story that's told by historians and theorists in the 15th century itself. You know, [15th century music theorist Johannes] Tinctoris says in the 1470's that there's no music that's older than 40 years old that's worth hearing. And the reason is that the English - and he names John Dunstable as his main representative - have created a new sweet sound. And then this sound was taken up by continental composers - DuFay and Binchois - and now it's spread among the moderns. And so the English revolutionized music, according to him, in the 15th century. And the way we understand this nowadays is that the English had a particular fondness for consonance, and in particular a kind of consonance. They like a lot of thirds in their chords.

Brian McCreath So musically, we're talking about notes that basically sound good together, as opposed to notes that kind of clash.

Scott Metcalfe Yes, that's right. So consonance means sounds that go together harmoniously, whereas a dissonance is something that clashes and requires resolution to a consonance. What's particularly English about this kind of style is this reliance not on perfect consonances, as they're called. Those are fifths and octaves, things that are sort of open and bare. They're pure, but a little bit stark. The English love to mix in thirds, which are sweet and pleasing to the ear. "Sweet" is the adjective that's the "awesome" or "great" of the 15th century. It's just applied to everything that's "good," making it "sweet" in some way in music. We don't really know what it means, but clearly they thought words were sweet and the English seem to have pioneered a style in which there are a lot of what are called imperfect consequences. These are the thirds and sixths. And a particularly English thing, if I can get a little more technical, is this sound called fauxbourdon, which is, in technical terms, a series of parallel six-three chords. The lowest note has a third above it and then a fourth above that. It's not a final chord, but it's sweet, and if you do them in parallel, you get a very striking sound, which is characteristically English. You will hear it all over this concert, especially in the carols. So that's a particularly English thing.

This mass that we're doing, we do a couple movements of this mass, the Missa veterem hominem, which is an anonymous mass from the 1440's. Here, it's another English composer. And there's a particular technical development which has to do with the relationship of the two lower parts and adding a fourth part to what's the standard at that time, a three part sonority. And masses like this - there are a handful that were composed in England - made it to the continent in the 1440's. And you can see their effect technically on the compositions of continental composers - Ockethem, DuFay and other composers after that - who begin writing mass cycles, that is, a setting of all the five movements of the mass that happen at every mass, the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus dei.

Brian McCreath That's amazing. So we're talking about this music as being six centuries old and from almost another world. And yet, at that time, we're talking about music that went in new directions that people kind of hadn't heard before or tried before.

Scott Metcalfe Yes, there's a real sense in this period that style is changing quickly. I mean, as Tinctoris said, if it's more than 40 years old, it sounds so old-fashioned that no one wants to listen to it. And they didn't. They mostly did not sing old music with the exception of plainchant. That's a repertoire that's hundreds of years old by this point, although the composition of plainchant was still going on in the 15th century, including by major composers. DuFay composed plainchant, for example. But there is this large repertoire of chant which is centuries old, most of it, and steeped in tradition. And you'll hear quite a lot of that on this program as well from the particularly English tradition, which is called the Sarum Chant, because it's associated with the Church of Salisbury.

Brian McCreath Okay, so with this centuries-old music, new though it was in its time, we still have our ears today. And this almost is a question for all of Blue Heron, which is, how does it speak to us today? Do we hear the newness, or do you feel the newness of this music when you're performing it? And what do you feel like it has to say to our ears today in the midst of our world?

Scott Metcalfe That's a complicated question, or a question with a lot of questions tucked inside it.

Brian McCreath Fair enough.

Scott Metcalfe I don't think that most listeners today will hear the newness in it. I think in order to hear what's new, you have to have a quite broad and deep knowledge of music for centuries. So I can hear what's new in it compared to what was being written 30 years before, for example. But for me, that's not the most striking thing either, because of course we have in our ears now music up to what was written yesterday. So our sense of the new is quite different. And I don't know that the average listener in the 15th century would have been so struck by the newness either, so much as just, this is our music now. They're not chasing after novelty as listeners.

The composers, of course, are always pushing the boundaries of their craft, like any artist, always. That's just a universal characteristic of the artistic temperament. But for the listener, I think they're hearing it as music of now. And the reason is partly because they hear a lot less music than we do. They don't have the radio, they don't have recordings. The only time they hear music, it's actually being made live by human beings. So that aspect of it that I think is the most important thing that we do as musicians now. It's not particular to Blue Heron, although with an early music group, maybe it's particularly relevant.

We are trying to create for people and for ourselves an experience of live music making, of the real communication between living human beings in front of you in the same room. And we do it in this somewhat artificial format of "the concert," which we've inherited from the 18th, 19th centuries, really 19th century in its current form, and a lot of the rules or principles of the concert format we adhere to if we like. But I think it's better if people try to experience this, and maybe, I hope, they do experience it, not as a formal situation in which there's the musicians on the stage and then there's this big divide and then everyone in the dark is sort of worshipfully listening to this, but rather it's a participatory experience as any kind of ritual would have been. Everyone's participating. Some have more active roles and others have receptive roles, but you can actively listen as well. And that, of course, for musicians, is what's wonderful about a live performance: there's an audience, and you can feel their energy, and we thrive on it. Everyone is necessary to the experience. So in that way that's what's new, or it's not new, but it only happens at that moment in time in that particular room. This is like the question, why is early music relevant? Well, why is music relevant? This is why. And it doesn't matter if it was composed a week ago or 600 years ago. It's being sung to you now by living singers. So it's our music.

Brian McCreath I love the way you walk through that whole thing. And what's particularly striking in what you just said is that the listeners 600 years ago would have heard this simply as the music of their time and as almost a rarity in their lives because there wasn't music around them all the time. It's the absolute converse of our reality, in which music is almost pummeling us every day of our lives through coffee shops and those times when we choose to listen to music, radio, etc., but also times when we don't really choose. It's just there because it can be. And so stepping into the experience that you're offering is the opposite effect almost, that it takes us away from all that other music that is around us, into this other place.

Scott Metcalfe Yes, exactly. I hope that's true. I've been traveling a fair amount recently and I've been struck that there's nowhere you're allowed to just listen to what's in the environment around you. There's always something being piped in. It's usually an advertisement, even at the gas station now, you know? You can't put gas in your car without having the Weather Channel or some inane music piping over Gas TV or whatever it's called. And it's the same in airports and in elevators and everywhere. Of course, there's a lot of noise around us as well, and I think that some of the most moving moments in a concert are the silences. We should make room within all that sound, the harmony and the melody, for silence as well, so that our ears can be re-attuned to silence and that we can hear the sounds of living people around us as well.

Brian McCreath Yeah, this is exactly what I'm saying, that when you step into this experience, this concert, you are leaving that constancy of sound behind and elevating this music from 600 years ago. But here's the thing that you just mentioned: calibrating our ears. That silence allows us that moment of recalibration, of resetting before the next thing happens. You have a group of artists that you're working with who also have very busy schedules in lots of other ways, many of them singing all kinds of other music. Tell me about the calibration of the artists that you're working with in this concert. They've done this music before, or at least this kind of music anyway. And if someone is coming from a concert that they did with an orchestral pops program and someone else is coming from a new music program, they're being asked to do something now very different.

Scott Metcalfe Yes.

Brian McCreath What is it like to recalibrate as an ensemble? How long does it take? What are the exercises that you might go through together to reestablish what you're doing for medieval England?

Scott Metcalfe Well, we try to take our time in preparation because this is absolutely true, that our job as performers is more complicated now than it would have been for performers in the 15th century who were only singing that last 40 years of music plus plainchant, whereas we're singing hundreds and hundreds of years worth of repertoire in all sorts of different settings, different tuning systems, different pitches, different pronunciations, different languages. Early music people are sometimes falsely characterized as specialists. We are so far from being specialists. We are less specialized than people who do sort of conventional mainstream repertoire because we're covering more centuries. And what's, I think, a principle of the early music movement is that we're trying to take seriously the differences in style between all those different types of music and languages. We have to spend a fair amount of time remembering how to sing in tune in the way that works for this music. It's not the tuning of your piano, it's not the tuning of your Baroque orchestra either. It's a different kind of tuning system.

We need to remember how to pronounce 15th century English, which has been a long time since we spoke it. We need to reestablish the intimacy between each other that is a requirement of this kind of chamber music. That, at least, that's a constant, right? Any musician doing chamber music, that sort of intimate communication and awareness of your fellow musicians, that's a given. So at least that's not different. Maybe the way we do it is different. We have to relearn what a dissonance means in the 15th century. If you do a lot of later music, you may be used to much different kinds of dissonances, things that really are harsh sounding or more obvious. Dissonance in the 15th century may feel subtle if you're used to later forms of dissonance, certainly if you're used to 20th century music, right? So we have to relearn that, You know, it's a second, it's a sixth, a sixth over a fifth; these things mean really specific things in the 15th century that we need to remember. So it takes a while. Fortunately, we usually have a while, and we have a roster of people, many of whom have worked together now for many, many years in many, many programs. So we're fortunate in that way.

Brian McCreath Tell me about your own path to discovering this set of music. Honestly, I don't know exactly where you came through academically with your Ph.D., and you do an amazing amount of research for everything Blue Heron does. But can you recall your own sort of immersion in this set of music, the English music of the 15th century, and what that was like for you when you began to kind of peel back the onion layers and discover what was there?

Scott Metcalfe I can actually. It's a quite personal story. First, though, as a matter of fact, I do not actually have a Ph.D.

Brian McCreath Oh, OK! [laughs]

Scott Metcalfe I have a Masters. I feel like I could have a Ph.D. based on the amount of work that I do, [laughs] but I do not, in fact, have a Ph.D.

Brian McCreath Well, if I were empowered to grant such a thing, I would feel like I could absolutely grant you that.

Scott Metcalfe I would accept an honorary doctorate from somewhere. That's not going to happen. [laughs]

This program, or a sort of earlier version of this program, was the very first Christmas program that Blue Heron did. We stayed away from Christmas programs for a number of years in our early seasons. The calendar's very crowded and it didn't seem necessary to add another one. But of course people love concerts around this time of year. And I thought, well, there's this music, this medieval English music, which I heard growing up because my parents were co-founders and members of the University of Vermont Baroque Ensemble in the 1960s, when early music was really the counterculture. My parents were not particularly countercultural; they're from Toronto, and my dad's a professor at the University of Vermont, and my mom's a professional pianist. But they were part of this group, which did a lot of baroque music, as the name suggests. But they also did Christmas programs and they did a lot of this medieval English repertoire. It's been around in a decent edition for many, many years in the encyclopedic collection of English music called Musica Britannica. One of the early volumes is - it might even be Volume Four - medieval carols edited by John Stevenson. So there's all this stuff in there, and some of these tunes your listeners are going to recognize, like "Hail Mary full of Grace," and "There is No Rose." These are very familiar, along with some of these other ones as well that are on our program, like "Noel Sing We." So I grew up hearing those around the holidays.

When we decided to do a Christmas program in the 2000-aughts, at some point, this seemed like an obvious choice. And actually we did some of this live in the Fraser Studio at GBH not long after the studio had been built, I think. I can't remember when that was. And at some point, as we were looking toward this, I thought, you know, it'd be great to have a harp. I'd never played the harp at that point. But I thought, my parents have this old medieval harp, which they bought in the 1970's, which is a sort of quasi-medieval harp, the kind of marriage of Gothic and Danish Modern, not uncharacteristic in the 1970's, when it was made in New Hampshire. I could get that, and I could play a few things. So, I remember vividly being in that studio and about to play and thinking, "What am I doing? This is insane. I am about to play for a live audience larger than any I've ever played for on an instrument I actually don't play. Maybe this is not the best choice." But I did. And now I have a much more accurate copy of a 15th century harp. This one was made in Vermont, and I've played it on this program ever since I got it. So, for me, the program is really personal, sort of honoring my parents and the music that I heard growing up.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. I had no idea. I mean, there's so much of your personal history that's reflected in this program, but the origin story of Blue Heron, or stories, plural of Blue Heron. You play harp on so many performances now. I've never thought about, like, "Well, when did you learn to play the harp?" I had no idea it would have been with this program back in those years.

Scott Metcalfe It started with this program.

Brian McCreath That's amazing. Fantastic.

Well, coming up in January is another Blue Heron program right after the holidays. And I wonder if you can just tell me a little bit about that program, what listeners can look forward to once we get past this busy time of year and we're kind of back into a little bit more normal routine. What is Blue Heron doing in January?

Scott Metcalfe Yes, coming up in just a few weeks, it's a program called Renaissance Portraits, and it was originally conceived not for Blue Heron, but for the group Tenet in New York City, in conjunction with an exhibition of Renaissance portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this massive exhibition of mostly 15th century Italian portraiture, paintings, medallions and sculpture. Unfortunately, it's not being mounted now, but there's a wonderful catalog which is still available, and it's available online as well. So, you can see a lot of the art that's connected.

The idea was to make a sort of musical counterpoint to the portraiture. We see their marriage portraits, portraits that combine a man and a woman. We see portraits of women who are sort of being proposed as candidates for marriage. That's another category. We have sort of official portraiture, like portraits of dukes and popes and so forth. And also we begin to see not portraits as a sort of bust kind of portrait that we see of the elevated classes, but, you know, off in the corners of these pictures, sometimes, we see more common people. That's the stupidest expression, but it's the one we use, right? People who are not fortunate or unfortunate enough to have been born into nobility. So we also have a couple of pieces here, one of which is sort of theatrical lament. It's a kind of Punch and Judy lover, you know, who comes in saying, "Oh, woe is me, everything is terrible! I'm going to hang myself with a golden chord!" I mean, it's all this, "ah, yes, that will look great, won't it?" And another piece has a sort of fantastically interesting text. It's a kind of advertisement for this cook named Barileto. And he says, "I'm the best. I make the best soup and I make the best pastry and I'm good with pesto and I can do this and that. And if you have a party coming up, if you don't hire me, you're making a big mistake. Oh, by the way, don't get in my way also, because I'm a real fighter as well." And it's this sort of strutting kind of advertisement, but it lists all the things, like, I do spices and I can do weddings. I do everything. That's an unusual sort of portrait in music.

So it's music from Italy in the 15th century. A surprising amount of it is composed by non-Italians actually, like DuFay is pretty prominent. But he spent years in Italy and had a long-standing relationship with the Medici. And we have a surviving letter from him to the Medici written in French. French was a courtly language in Italy in the 15th century. So the musical program is one of portraits.

And going along with it, we have a special event which is online as part of our Spotlight series. This will precede the concert by about a week-and-a-half, and it's being presented by Professor Jodi Cranston from Boston University. And she'll talk about 15th century portraiture. She's, in fact, a specialist in Renaissance Italian portraiture. So she'll be drawing these connections between what's new in portraiture in the 15th century, I mean, this is a sort of beginning of the idea of a portrayal of individuals. Some of the portraiture is trying very much to convey the individual face, the details that make someone really a distinct personality. But they're also conforming to these ideals. What is a beautiful woman supposed to look like? Well, she has to have a high forehead, and she has to have a certain kind of nose, and her hair should be a certain color. And a lot of those terms of beauty are imported from Petrarch, actually. The complexion should be white and the lips should be rose red. And we find that language in the texts that are being set as well. I think it's a fantastically interesting program, a sort of window into both personality types and individual personalities in the 15th century.

Brian McCreath And what it brings to my mind is, because we're talking about this month and 15th century English music for the season, and then there's the 15th century Italian music of the Renaissance. And it brings to mind the idea that someone might have spent their holidays in England and then traveled to Italy in the 15th century and actually heard this stuff all within the space of, what, weeks or months or years or something like that, that these are coexistent, really, as programs.

Scott Metcalfe Absolutely, yeah. There is a connection. Of course, it's a lot further from England to Italy in the 15th century than it is now.

Brian McCreath Than it would be for us, right.

Scott Metcalfe But music absolutely traveled. In fact, one of the back stories of music history in England is that the English were quite assiduous in destroying musical manuscripts. I mean, an enormous amount of music was destroyed in all the religious upheaval in the 16th century. That's primarily when things got destroyed, all this iconoclasm, and music got burned and it was discarded and used to wrap fish. And a lot of English repertoire survives only in continental sources, and a lot of those are in Italy, in fact.

Brian McCreath Wow.

Scott Metcalfe Including this mass we're doing.

Brian McCreath Wow. Amazing. Scott Metcalfe, it's always just incredibly illuminating to talk with you about music and about what Blue Heron does and how you do it. It's wonderful. So thank you for spending some time with me today. I appreciate it.

Scott Metcalfe Thank you very much.