The Classical Station’s interview with Scott Metcalfe for My Life in Music
Interview with Scott Metcalfe
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: Liz Linder)
For My Life in Music, Robert Kennedy interviews Scott Metcalfe, the Artistic Director of the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir. As a specialist in 15th to 17th century music, Metcalfe strives to bring unknown Renaissance artists and composers new appreciation. Tonight, he discusses the history of Blue Heron, as well as the challenges of performing music from centuries ago.
KENNEDY: Scott Metcalfe, tell our listeners how your fine ensemble, Blue Heron, got its start. What kind of choral music does it perform?
METCALFE: We were founded in 1999. The idea was to create a professional choir that would devote itself to Renaissance music. There are more of those around now than there were then. At that time, there were very few in North America. The group was dreamed up by three people, singer and musicologist named Noël Bisson, another singer and musician with various other accomplishments named Cheryl Ryder, and myself. I had not directed Renaissance choral music at that point in my life; I’m actually a violinist. When I started out, I got extremely excited about Renaissance music in the 1990s, so I accepted at once and we went about starting this ensemble.
So we started in the fall of 1999 with a program of music largely drawn from one set of partbooks copied for Canterbury Cathedral around 1540. Of these five partbooks one of them had been lost. It’s been missing for centuries. A brilliant English musicologist, Nick Sandon, devoted his life to this music and actually recomposed all of the missing parts. It’s such a superlative job that I never have ever questioned a note that he supplied.
That was our beginning, and our characteristic was that we had an ambition to do something different from what was happening around us. We wanted to do repertoire that was outside of the mainstream, even the mainstream of Renaissance choral music. So we were immediately doing music like Hugh Aston and Robert Jones and John Mason and a lot of people whose music is virtually unknown nowadays. That repertoire became our signature repertoire for a lot of the first part of our existence. We performed it every year and we went on to record five CDs’ worth of that music, almost entirely the first recordings ever of the repertoire.
Since that time, we have evolved into something that really is not what we would call a choir nowadays. A choir as we understand it today is a large group of singers with several people singing on each part. We’re like a vocal chamber ensemble that sings music almost entirely one person on a part. If we want to get extra fancy or sonorous or festive, then perhaps we might sing two on a part. We are very much a choir in the Renaissance sense of the term.
KENNEDY: What is the oldest music that you perform?
METCALFE: Well, the oldest we’ve ever done is playing Gregorian chant, which reaches back before the year 1000. It’s the oldest music of the Christian church. That’s not a staple for us, but we incorporate it into our concerts from time to time. The oldest polyphony we’ve ever done is from the Notre Dame repertoire from around 1200 by Léonin and Pérotin. But our repertoire is focused in the 15th and 16th centuries, we’ve done a fair amount of 14th century music and 7th century music, and in fact, even some 20th and 21st century music.
KENNEDY: Performing older music obviously presents all sorts of challenges for modern performers. What guidance do manuscripts and commentaries of the period offer performers here in the 21st century?
METCALFE: Well, the further back that you go, the less information we have. So if you’re looking to do music from the 18th century, for example, there are quite a lot of treatises available that were written specifically to tell performers how to make music, how to play, how to sing, how to realize the notation that they see on a page. That’s not so true in the 17th century. They’d be getting advice like that from books in the 17th century. In the 16th century, there are vanishingly few. By the time you’re back in the 15th century there are none whatsoever.
What we have then are a few theoretical treatises, and those treatises are not so much concerned with telling people how to perform as they are telling people how to compose. They’re concerned with music theory as a somewhat separate preoccupation from the practice of making music. Back in the 15th century, there’s very little specific guidance offered from any written source about how to perform. You glean what you can from the few descriptions of music-making from the period, and sometimes those descriptions are fanciful or literary sources.
It’s a process of inference, looking at the music, inferring backwards in time from things that we know more concretely about later. It’s a little bit dangerous, of course, because things change in one direction. They don’t go backwards. But there are certain things that you can draw lines backwards.
For example, the idea of a comfortable natural vocal range has been pretty stable for centuries. That is to say, the human voice is probably about the same as it was then. A tenor is a tenor, a bass is a bass. The soprano is a soprano. They constituted their ensembles differently than we do. The basic building blocks are the same, and the voices are the same as ours.
How they use those voices, we don’t really know, so we have to again infer from the qualities that seem to be prized in the written accounts, which are sweetness and clarity of pronunciation, and a distinct way of delivering the text, melodies, and rhythms. “Sweetness” is pretty vague, but it gives you something to work with. We want something that struck them as sweet and natural. Perhaps our sense of sweet and natural might be the same as theirs, especially if our sense is informed by years and years of singing early music and working with early instruments.
KENNEDY: Scott, tell us about some of the recordings that Blue Heron has made.
METCALFE: We’ve released around a dozen. There’s that series of English music that I mentioned earlier from the Peterhouse partbooks. So there’s over five individuals of that as well as a five-CD set, which is called The Lost Music of Canterbury, as it’s music that disappeared not long after it was copied. Returning that music is one of our great accomplishments.
We just finished up a multi-season project in which we perform all of the surviving music of Johannes Ockeghem, who I think is one of the greatest composers of all time. We’ve performed all of his music now, as well as made new editions of everything, and we learned an awful lot about performance practice.
Performers do an awful lot of the work in figuring out how to perform. We read what we can, we take the sources very seriously and we try out what they seem to say and then figure out if it works. One of the fruits of the Ockeghem project will be a complete recording of secular songs. Volume 1 was released before COVID, and the second volume of the two will be out of this year.
We just recorded the first recording of a complete book of madrigals by Cipriano de Rore. I’m very proud of them. It’s a book of 20 madrigals, the heart of which is a cycle of 16 sonnet settings in modal order. Cipriano’s first book made a huge impression at the time and has received an enormous amount of comment in the scholarly work in later years, but no one since the 16th century has been able to hear the entire cycle in order. That’s a project we worked on with a musicologist, Jesse Owens. She got us started about it and brought the idea to us and worked very closely with us. We worked as well with someone who worked with us on pronunciation and rhetoric. It’s amazing music, extraordinarily complicated and challenging as well as very beautiful and expressive. But it takes some listening to.
The most recent release is a recording of Le Remede de Fortune, The Music of a Fortune by Guillaume de Marchaut, which is a narrative poem, a story in which there are musical settings with musical notation. We have narration and pictures and added music to replace the thousands of lines of narrative in Middle French. On the CD there are pieces which substitute for that and move the story along and resonate with the themes of the poem. It was released recently and it’s fantastic music.
Join The Classical Station for the full interview with Scott Metcalfe tonight at 7 p.m. on TheClassicalStation.org, 89.7 FM, or our app!