CAMBRIDGE — If there had been a pop chart in 15th-century Europe, “L’homme armé” would have topped it, even though the composer is anonymous and no one is sure who the “armed man” of the lyrics is supposed to represent. What’s more, the rhythmically catchy tune turns up in close to 40 polyphonic settings of the Mass, by such storied names as Guillaume Du Fay, Jacob Obrecht, Josquin des Prez, Cristóbal Morales, Palestrina, and, more recently, Peter Maxwell Davies. Saturday at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, Johannes Ockeghem’s “Missa L’homme armé” was the centerpiece of the third in a series of Blue Heron concerts celebrating the Belgian composer’s 600th birthday.
The theme of this evening was the interplay between sacred and secular. In the 15th century, popular songs were finding their way into church services, though church authorities did not always approve. Ockeghem incorporated the tune of “L’homme armé” into his Mass, initially in the tenor and later in the lower registers.
What was unusual about Blue Heron’s presentation was music director Scott Metcalfe’s decision to have this melody sung to its secular text rather than to the text of the Mass. Thus, in the Kyrie, Jason McStoots sang the words of “L’homme armé” against everybody else’s “Kyrie eleison.” That juxtaposition brought sacred and secular together in an audible way, but so did Blue Heron’s overall performance, which, as always with this choir, was rich and ardent and made heaven seem an everyday thing. In the final “Agnus Dei,” however, Steven Hrycelak’s bass boomed out the “L’homme armé” and the words — “Beware the armed man! — became ominous as the ever-unpredictable Ockeghem’s Mass slid from major modality to minor.
The rest of the evening provided context in the form of songs by Ockeghem and his contemporaries. Here, too, sacred and secular were hard to separate. Du Fay’s “Vostre bruit et vostre grant fame” could as easily be a love song to the Virgin Mary as to a lady; suggestions for the “armed man” have ranged from a Turk or a Crusader to St. Michael or Christ. Some composers even combined two texts into a single composition, as Philippe Basiron did with “L’homme armé” and “D’ung autre amer,” another song that could be sacred or secular. Blue Heron brought the same clarity and gusto to these works that it did to the Mass, making the one kind of music as blessed as the other.
Missa L’homme armé
Presented by Blue Heron.
At First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, Saturday
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.