Machaut Mini-Fest: An Interview with Scott Metcalfe

Les Délices’ 2020-21 Virtual Concert Series comes to a close with our most ambitious video project to date: Machaut’s Lai of the Fountain, a collaboration with Boston’s Blue Heron, which features Machaut’s stunning Lai along with works by Pykini, Ciconia, and others. Lai of the Fountain, together with an upcoming online release from BH entitled Le grant retthorique forms a “Machaut Mini-Fest”, a digital celebration of the composer’s singular and visionary genius.

Machaut’s Lai of the Fountain, (premiering April 8th), represents our fourth collaborationbetween Les Délices and Blue Heron. Les Délices’ Debra Nagy shares a passion for late-Medieval music with Scott Metcalfe, a multi-instrumentalist who has been Blue Heron’s Musical and Artistic Director since its founding in 1999. Read on to discover more about Scott’s love of Machaut, the lai, and much more!

Machaut’s Lai of the Fountain is just one part of a virtual Machaut Mini-Fest that Les Délices and Blue Heron are producing. Could you tell us a little bit about what makes Machaut and his music so unique?

Scott Metcalfe: One striking fact about Machaut that sets him apart from every other composer from the 14th century is the care he lavished on the transmission and preservation of his artistic legacy. We have half a dozen “complete works” manuscripts dating from the 1350s through the1390s – from Machaut’s lifetime and the decade or two after his death – and he seems to have had a hand in supervising their compilation. These are luxury items, some lavishly illustrated as well as handsomely and carefully copied, that represent a rare effort of artistic stewardship. One result is that we believe that we have pretty much everything that Machaut wrote, both music and poetry, or at least everything he thought was worthy of being preserved; and there is quite a lot of it, very much more music and poetry than we have from any other composer of the time.

Of course, that wouldn’t be anything to get excited about if the music and poetry were not so wonderful, but Machaut’s music is entrancing – quirky, beautiful, expressive, and virtuosic – and the poetry (as far as this non-native speaker of middle French can tell) is also captivating.

The lai is a extended poetic form of twelve stanzas (each with a different rhyme schemes) and Machaut is one of very few composers to set the lai to music. What are the challenges and rewards of digging into one of these big Medieval pieces, like Machaut’s Lai of the Fountain?

SM: A 12-stanza lai is a big piece of music, which might take over 20 minutes to perform. Most of them are monophonic – 20 minutes of melody, period! – and so part of the challenge is to follow Machaut as he leads you musically from stanza to stanza through a series of unfolding variations, and to absorb and transmit the musical and emotional shape of the whole piece. But Machaut’s large-scale sense of the musical and poetic journey is extraordinary. It’s hard to think of many other composers who could write 20 minutes of unaccompanied melody that passes by so quickly. One of the great rewards for me of getting to know Machaut’s lays is that I have been entirely convinced that these enormous works are completely viable as performance pieces for audiences nowadays.

As Artistic Director of Blue Heron, Medieval music is at the heart of your professional life. What inspires you/what do you love most about this repertoire?

SM: The adventure! Practically everything that we do is music that we are encountering for the first time. The repertoire we draw from, from the early 14th century through the entire 16th century, is enormous and it lies far, far outside the mainstream.

Equally dear to me is the close work with my colleagues, both people I’ve been making music with for decades and those I have been fortunate to meet recently.

What would you encourage a person totally new to Medieval music to listen for during this concert?

SM: First of all, just enjoy the melodies and sonorities, which are so beautiful (and sometimes so weird). Then begin to listen to how the composers set the words, playing the sounds and rhythms of the poetry against those of the music. Machaut‘s word setting is generally quite specific – and it is seldom what one might choose by instinct, looking at the melody by itself. (And remember, he wrote both the poetry and the music.) What kind of game is he playing?

A friend recently told me about a personal experiment she ran, in which she consciously refrained from offering any sort of judgement or forming any sort of opinion about a piece of music; she just listened. I recommend that approach to all of us!

Put Scott’s advice to the test during Machaut’s Lai of the Fountain, premiering April 8th and available through April 19th! Single tickets ($8-$20) are on-sale now!