For their “Lost Music of Canterbury” concert, the thirteen members of the Blue Heron choir divided into five vocal parts: trebles, meanes, countertenors, tenors, and basses. It’s a common structure for early-sixteenth-century English polyphony, but one that is rarely heard, because most of England’s sacred music from this period has been lost.

On Sunday at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan, as part of the veteran early music series Music Before 1800, Blue Heron performed a selection of devotional pieces from the Peterhouse Partbooks, one of the few surviving collections of English polyphony. Blue Heron, a Boston-based group directed by Scott Metcalfe, have made recording and performing works from the Partbooks their mission. To date, they have released five CDs of music from the Partbooks, reintroducing to the repertoire composers like those on this program: Robert Fayrfax, John Taverner, Nicholas Ludford, Hugh Aston, and the mysterious Arthur Chamberlayne, who has only a single known work to his name.

The Partbooks appeared in the middle of a tumultuous period for sacred music in England. In 1540, King Henry VIII dissolved the monastic foundation at Canterbury Cathedral and reformed it as a “secular” institution, subject to the archbishop and the king, that wouldn’t follow the monastic practice of singing only plainchant music. So the Cathedral needed to recruit a choir and gather a repertory for them to perform.

Canterbury Cathedral, for which the collection that would become the Peterhouse Partbooks was compiled. Photo: Barnyz.

Enter Thomas Bull, a music scribe at Magdalen College, Oxford. Bull was commissioned to collect a compendium of English polyphony as part of his new position as a chorister at Canterbury. He collected more than seventy sixteenth-century polyphonic works, some by composers well known in England at the time—such as Taverner, Fayrfax, and Thomas Tallis—and others less so. In all the upheaval of the Reformation-era church, sacred polyphony, at least, seemed to be gaining a solid footing.

The church music collections that remain from the first half of the sixteenth century in England can be counted on two hands.

Not for long, though: after Henry VIII’s death in 1547, Protestant reformers under Henry’s son Edward VI disapproved of polyphony, considering it a carryover from the decadent rituals of Catholicism. Music manuscripts were, at best, neglected in libraries and, at worst, looted and burned or used as scratch paper.

The church music collections that remain from the first half of the sixteenth century in England can be counted on two hands: three choirbooks, four sets of partbooks, and an organ manuscript. Bull’s partbooks disappeared for years and resurfaced in the library of Peterhouse (Cambridge’s oldest and smallest college) in the 1630s. But even then, they were impossible to perform until 1983, when the musicologist Nick Sandon rewrote the missing tenor of the Partbooks, which had disappeared entirely, along with much of the treble parts.

Detail of a page from the Peterhouse Partbooks. Photo: Daisy Gibbs.

So when Blue Heron performs from the Partbooks (in Sandon’s revised version from 2015), they are doing more than introducing their audience to new music. They are also restoring the obscured image of pre- and Counter-Reformation Catholicism, which, as its music attests, was thriving at the time.

This program was composed of “votive antiphons,” prayers set to music and sung after Compline, the last service in the daily Divine Office, right before the singers went to sleep. This theme, along with Metcalfe’s helpful and winsome introductions to pieces on the program, reintroduces the audience to a common practice of English Catholic piety and makes Blue Heron’s a historical project as much as a musical one.

And they’re good musicians, too. In Robert Fayrfax’s “O Albane deo grate,” Blue Heron sang with a pure tone well suited to the simplicity of the music’s melodic lines, which are reminiscent of plainchant and not so elaborate as later Baroque polyphony.

The Blue Heron vocal ensemble with their director, Scott Metcalfe (right), at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. Photo: Alex Rainer

Votive antiphons often followed a formula: “O . . . We praise you for . . . Please grant us . . . ,” naming the saint, his or her attributes, and the singers’ particular request. Antiphons often reflected local devotions: “O Willelme pastor bone” is dedicated to St. William, the Archbishop of York, and accompanied by a prayer for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the founder of the college named for him where the composer, John Taverner, was a choral instructor. (That college became Christ Church, Oxford, after Wolsey’s downfall.) Blue Heron performed the brief piece with precision and grace, in tune with its reverent purpose.

“You’re hearing this composer’s complete works,” Metcalfe said while introducing Arthur Chamberlayne’s “Ave gratia plena Maria.” The only known piece by the composer—and the only historical reference to a man of that name—is a bit of a “word salad,” in Metcalfe’s description, as the composer attempts to fit a syllabically and syntactically dense version of the Ave Maria to all the harmonic demands of polyphony. But Blue Heron polished it off, showing the bite of their excellent enunciation technique on all those consonants. 

Of all the pieces on the program, Aston’s invocation of John the Baptist best portrayed a distinguishing quality of this period of polyphony: the sense that the voices flow together.

Hugh Aston is a Blue Heron favorite, and his “O baptista vates Christi” introduced him as a composer worth exploring in greater depth (Blue Heron’s first CD features a recording of his three Marian antiphons from the Partbooks). Of all the pieces on the program, Aston’s invocation of John the Baptist best portrayed a distinguishing quality of this period of polyphony: the sense that the voices flow together, instead of contrasting or borrowing the melody from one another in turn.

The drama of the music is not in heartrending melodies, grandiose dynamics, or technical flourishes, but in hearing the voices interact: they begin together, diverge, and return to a single point of harmony or unison, representing musically the active unity of prayer. In “O baptista,” the “Amen” seems to reach a conclusion, then divides again and returns to a sustained chord, while the tenor descends through these held notes like a small waterfall pouring into a peaceful pool. It is easy to hear why these antiphons were sung before bedtime.

Nicholas Ludford’s “Salve regina,” the final work on the program, includes a Middle English translation of the Latin that provides another reminder of the piece’s past: the last time it was rendered into English was in 1537. With its bittersweet melody and minor-key tonalities, this piece ended on the right note for a program of music that has emerged from a long night since it was last sung after Compline.