It has no hook, no melody. It hardly has a rhythm, nor does it have a chorus. There is nothing memorable about 15th-century music. So what part of it draws students, Jesuits, neighbors, and music-lovers to completely fill St. Mary’s Chapel in order to listen to it? What could possibly be the appeal to music that one can’t dance to, get stuck in one’s head, or even understand without a translation?
In short, Blue Heron made it seamlessly enjoyable. The performance group based out of Boston College and Boston University is led by its vast knowledge of historical musical practices, particularly from the Renaissance and Medieval periods. Its collection of music spans centuries and stretches across various styles and genres, specializing in 15th-century Franco-Flemish and early 16th-century English polyphony.
Polyphony is a style of musical composition employing two or more simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines. This sounds more complicated and primeval than it actually is—polyphony exists in the music we listen to today. Some modern examples of polyphony include “Boondocks” by country powerhouse group Little Big Town, or perhaps even more recognizable, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. The effects of polyphony are simple, but they create a big difference in the music we hear—they add depth, enrich texture, and make for a more dramatic and reverent sounding piece that is more likely to appeal to emotions compared to one with just a solo singer.
Listening to Blue Heron perform is important because they teach us the roots of the music we listen to today. Singing along to Freddie Mercury’s famous operatic section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” might feel like second nature, but it is quintessential to understand how that style of song came about. It might be a stretch, but the stylistic aspects of “Bohemian Rhapsody” are directly connected to those used in 15th-century music.
Blue Heron visited St. Mary’s Chapel as a part of its Ockeghem @600 series, which honors the work of Johannes Ockeghem, and will end in 2021 to commemorate his 600th birthday. Ockeghem was a famed composer of the Franco-Flemish school in the 15th-century known for his 14 surviving masses.
An important point to note about hearing Blue Heron at BC is its location: St. Mary’s Chapel is a space similar to those where this type of music was originally meant to be performed. The acoustics in the chapel were amazing; each singer’s voice stood out so clearly. Their voices bounced off each other and echoed within the walls of the chapel. The air inside felt so dense with harmonies, it was almost dizzying.
Much of the music played, especially noticeable during “Celsitonantis ave genitrix,” was somewhat trance-inducing. The entire audience was drawn into the music, fully feeling the harmonies and textures being performed. The lack of instrumentation allows one to completely grasp each and every detail.
Having said this, although one could easily hear musical techniques such as polyphony and harmony, and therefore truly feel the emotions they are trying to convey, it was impossible to understand the words they were singing (unless you speak Latin, of course). Translation booklets were provided for the audience, but it was difficult to catch some pieces. Oftentimes, the words they were singing did not resemble how one would think to read the word, making it easy to lose one’s spot. At one point, the older woman next to me was following along using the translation to the wrong song, yet she was still completely engrossed with the beautiful harmonies resonating throughout the chapel.
On the surface, Renaissance music, complete with its polyphony, harmony, and texture, is indeed boring to the average person. But there is a difference between finding beauty and significance within the music even though it’s not what one will listen to in one’s free time and the outright rejection of its ideals and historical qualities—one is appreciation, the other is ignorance. Blue Heron brought out the best of Renaissance music, so that even though one might not run back home to find it on Spotify, they still truly appreciated, felt, and learned about this unique and important style of music that laid the groundwork for the modern music we know and love today.