“Astonishing English Five-Part Polyphony”

The Boston-based group Blue Heron, performing Saturday, specializes in the "poetically sublime" music of 15th and 16th century England.

By - Apr 16th, 2015 11:01 am
Blue Heron Choir. Photo by Liz Linder.

Blue Heron Choir. Photo by Liz Linder.

You might call the members of Blue Heron musical archeologists. The early music choral group from Boston, the featured performers at an Early Music Now series concert on Saturday afternoon, will perform music from 16th century England that nearly disappeared altogether in the religious turmoil of that time. What has been found is often incomplete. Contemporary scholars have re-imagined the missing components to bring this richly polyphonic sacred music back to life.

Most everyone knows a part of the story. Henry VIII, to satisfy his quest for love(s), broke with the Pope to establish a Church of England under his direct control. Many church institutions were caught up in this turbulent time. Monasteries were closed. Religious conventions were challenged and the steady evolution of sacred music was interrupted.

Not long after Henry VIII’s death, leadership of the Church of England further rejected past practice and destroyed much of the legacy of sacred music from the first part of the 16th century. In a search for simpler music, the polyphonic splendor of English Renaissance music was suppressed. Catholic and Protestant tensions – even warfare – defined English politics for decades after that.

Canterbury Cathedral. Photo by Hans Musil

Canterbury Cathedral. Photo by Hans Musil

While these events were unfolding, Thomas Bull, a professional singer and music scribe, was employed by Canterbury Cathedral to create partbooks for an newly ambitious choir program. About 70 works from various sources survived the subsequent chaos, emerging mostly intact in England’s Peterhouse Library. But missing copies of tenor parts and some others required “recomposition.” English musicologist Nick Sandon took on the task beginning in the 1980’s and has released additional materials in the years since.

Scott Metcalfe has served as Musical and Artistic Director of the Blue Heron Choir since its founding in 1999. The choir, currently in residence at the Center for Early Music Studies at Boston University, explores little known music from across 15th and 16th century Europe and brings it back to life. In 2010, they began a multi-year project to issue a five CD edition of these premiere Peterhouse partbook performances.

Blue Heron’s structure is patterned after 16th century choral groups – thirteen singers in five parts. (Women have replaced boys for the higher parts.) Appropriate instruments accompany the sound. Hailed by the New Yorker as the American heir apparent to the Tallis Scholars, the ensemble has been praised by the Boston Musical Intelligencer for “assiduous attention to detail, ardent love for the music, and nuanced interpretations of texts once thought to be the ultimate poetry of sublimity.”

Scott Metcalfe, Director of Blue Heron Choir - photo by Liz Linder

Scott Metcalfe, Director of Blue Heron Choir. Photo by Liz Linder

The concert Saturday will feature works by little known composers Robert Hunt and Hugh Aston as well as a substantial mass – Missa sine nomine (Mass without a name) whose authorship has been lost to history.

Other than the novelty, what can we expect? Jeffrey Gantz reviewed a similar concert program for the Boston Globe: “This is an astonishing example of English five-part polyphony … (with) clarity and the exemplary balance.” In the Missa sine nomine Gantz observed, “The Credo’s gentle, reverent ‘Incarnatus’ was followed by a human-scaled ‘Crucifixus’ and then a swelling ‘Resurrexit,’ the voices entered in rapid succession, as if news of the Resurrection were spreading like wildfire. In the Agnus Dei, the basses’ slow tolling of the second ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’ was like a requiem before the fervent release of the ‘miserere nobis.'”

Early Music Now will present Blue Heron on Saturday April 18th at 3:00 PM at St. Joseph Center Chapel (1501 S Layton Blvd). A pre-talk at 2:00 PM will review the story of the discover and reconstruction of the music. Early Music will offer an end-of-season reception at intermission. (However, a “bonus” concert, Celebrating the Clarinet has been scheduled for May 9th.)

For further information, including complete performer details and program notes, see the Early Music Now website.  I recommend reviewing the more complete history of this extraordinary music by reading the extensive program notes in advance.

Tickets may be purchased on-line or at 414-225-3113. Tickets are $28 – $44, but $10 – $15 for students. The best parking is accessed from South 29th Street at Rogers street — a large lot with entry to the building from the back. Parking is also available in the lot south of the convent building housing the chapel.

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