Blue Heron’s performance channels 15th-century France

The Boston ensemble performed in the French chanson tradition.
The Boston ensemble performed in the French chanson tradition.

On Sunday afternoon, Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron presented a concert of 15th century French song to a large and appreciative audience in Brooks Rogers Recital Hall. The group, directed by conductor, violinist and Renaissance music specialist Scott Metcalfe, is comprised of both vocalists and instrumentalists performing on period instruments, and the concert featured a wide variety of vocal and instrumental combinations.

The French chanson tradition has been fairly well preserved, and now boasts a repertoire of hundreds of known songs. They were most often performed in courts as entertainment, though little information about the utility of specific pieces has been found. Modern listeners may notice the genre’s rigid restrictions: Most songs are under five minutes in length, most are written for three voices, their texts are in French and most often concern love, and most are in one of three structural forms, which mirror the forms of medieval French poetry. Within these restrictions, however, 15th century composers found ways to maximize expression.

The concert opened with a song by Guillaume DuFay, one of the most most prolific composers of the era, and one on which Blue Heron has focused extensively. It was a good introduction to the genre, with its slippery, nimble vocal melismas and unpredictable cadences and resolutions. The singers, in this piece and throughout the program, were impressively expressive, handling the demanding material gracefully and smoothly.

Particularly lovely was Tristre plaisir et douleureuse joie, a plaintive, melancholy piece by Binchois. The text describes a speaker growing comfortable with sadness, even feeling a kind of affection for his long-cultivated sorrow. The decision to play the contra-tenor voice on a harp, the sparse notes plucked softly, gave this song a wondrously ruminative, introspective quality that would have been lessened had the lowest voice been sung.

Other highlights displayed a similar concern for the appropriateness of instrumental decisions. A piece by the English composer Walter Frye, “So ys emprentid in my remembrance,” began with a long instrumental introduction, played on a vielle, a doucaine and a rebec. Both the vielle and rebac are related to the violin; the rebac is pitched higher than our modern instrument and the vielle slightly lower, though both have a thinner, tinier sound than our ears are used to. The doucaine is quite startling to hear; it is an early version of what would become the bassoon, but its sound is much reedier and concentrated, as if it were the love-child of an oboe and a saxophone. From some pitch unsteadiness and a false start, it was clear that the doucaine is particularly temperamental to play, but the combined sound of these instruments lent this particular song a jovial, festive atmosphere that enhanced the joyous devotion evident in the lyrics. It was also a pleasure to read and listen to Old English: “In wele, in wo, in joye ore hevenesse,/ Myn hert ys with yow, go wey that ye go,” is translated to “In happiness, in woe, in joy or heaviness,/My heart is with you, wherever you may go.”

The final two pieces of the concert broke away from many of the restrictions of the previous ones, with more vocal lines that called for larger groups of players. They were also a good introduction to a different side of French song, with more irreverent and witty texts. The last song in particular, which taunts women with the words “If you get married,/ You’ll be sorry! /And when? And when?/ Before one year is out,” is almost banal in its simplicity, but when the words are paired to music the impression is refreshing and clever. One gets the impression that these Renaissance composers didn’t always take their music as seriously as Beethoven or Schumann did, that they didn’t always have to inspire or impress listeners, but simply entertain them. That’s a message that many later composers could have benefited from hearing and considering.

Though Blue Heron was successful at conveying both the personal and the social utilities of this French music, the concert could have shed two or three songs and not missed too much. For a modern audience, hearing 20 similarly structured, instrumented and texted songs one after another dampened the impressions that some of the stronger songs made. That the final two songs received especially strong applause from the audience signaled that more variety would have been welcomed, and I think that removing a few songs and maximizing the variety of the ones included would have created a more accessible and perhaps more successful introduction to this century of French music.