The Intersection of the Secular and the Sacred in Fifteenth Century Music


by David O'Neill


On Thursday, October 21, the Jesuit Community and the Music Department welcomed members of the BC community and music aficionados from greater Boston to for a night of timeless music. Held in Saint Mary’s Chapel, audience members filled in for a performance by Blue Heron, the world-renowned renaissance ensemble directed by Scott Metcalfe. Titled “Ma maistresse: Songs, Masses & a Motet for My Lady,” the concert featured the works of the well-known Renaissance composers Johannes Ockeghem, Johannes Regis, and Firminus Caron, and Barbingant.


The ensemble began the evening with a motet to Our Lady written by Johannes Regis titled “Celsitonantis ave genitrix” (Hail, mother of the High-Thunderer). Next, the group gave a haunting rendition of the secular song “Au travail suis,” which details the agony that Barbingant feels in being separated from his love.


Composers of the time often utilized the tunes of secular songs for Mass pieces and hymns. The program explained that these tunes would have been widely recognizable to the faithful. The incorporation of secular melodies was not intended to be irreverent, but instead was meant to highlight parallels between everyday life and the divine. This idea based itself on Saint Thomas Aquinas’s argument for metaphor: “It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things…in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it” (Summa Theologiæ Q. 1, art 9). Aquinas’s argument in this case was specific to Scripture, but Blue Heron finds this argument applicable to the analogies in music employed in the fifteenth century as well. Songs such as “Au travail suis,” “En atendant vostre venue,” and “Ma maistresse” were understood to be addressed to both the composer’s lover (his lady) and the Blessed Virgin Mary (our Lady).


The night continued with Ockeghem’s Missa Au travail suis, the name and tune of which he took form the aforementioned song by Barbingant. Following the Mass, the group sang the song “En atendant vostre venue,” whose author has been lost to time. Interestingly, the song was itself lost to history, a fifteenth-century songbook was discovered three years ago. The program explained that the Boston College performance of the piece was likely the first performance since the fifteenth century.


As the concert neared its end, we heard to the music which gave the evening its title. First, Blue Heron sang the chanson composed by Ockeghem, “Ma maistresse.” This song could be applied either to a lover or to Mary. The translation of the first verse of the song reads that the lady is “perfect in good qualities, if ever a woman was, / She alone whose reputation and fame it is / To be without peer.” As the song progresses, Ockeghem expresses his desire for the pity and vision of the maistresse; these ideas call to mind Marian prayers such as the Memorare.


The evening finished with a Mass that Ockeghem composed, based on “Ma Maistresse” and titled “Missa ma maistresse.” Sadly, only the Kyrie and the Gloria are extant. The program explains that “both movements draw liberally and audibly on the discantus and tenor of the chanson.”


Pieces like “Missa au travail suis,” “Missa ma maistresse,” and “Celsitonantis ave genitrix” were written as expressions of prayer for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained in a 2007 letter to the world’s Bishops, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

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