The Music of Guillaume de Machaut


The leading composer of the ars nova in France was Guillaume de Machaut.  He was famous not only as a musician but also as a poet.  His musical works include examples of most of the forms that were current in his time, and show him as a composer of mingled conservative and progressive tendencies.

Musical Forms and Style

Most of Machaut's 23 motets were based on the traditional pattern:  an instrumental liturgical tenor and different texts in the two upper voices.  They continue the contemporary trends toward greater secularity, greater length, and much greater rhythmic complexity. Isorhythm is present in the tenors of nearly all of these.  Isorhythmic structure sometimes involves the upper parts, the motetus and triplum, as well as the tenor. Equality of imperfect and perfect mensurations is now wholly achieved, with no preference for one or the other.  Considerable use is made of hocket in these motets, but the only work of Machaut's specifically called a "hocket" is an apparently instrumental three-part motet-like piece with an isorhythmic tenor whose melody came from the Gregorian intonation of the word "David" in an Alleluia verse.

Machaut's monophonic songs may be regarded as continuing the trouvere tradition in France.  They comprise eighteen "lais," a 12th-century form similar to that of the sequence, and about twenty-five songs which he called "chansons balladees,"  though the more common name for them is virelai.  Characteristic of the virelai is the form "Abba...", in which "A" stands for the refrain, "b" the first part of the stanza (which is repeated) and "a" the last part of the stanza (which uses the same melody as the refrain).  If there are several stanzas the refrain "A" is usually repeated only after the last stanza.

Machaut also wrote a few polyphonic virelais, with an accompanying instrumental tenor part below the vocal solo; in these he occasionally introduced the device of a musical rhyme between the endings of the two melodic sections.

It was in his polyphonic virelais, rondeaux, and ballades -- the so-called formes fixes -- that Machaut showed most clearly the progressive tendencies of the ars nova.  The rondeau, like the virelai, made use of only two musical phrases, combined typically in the pattern "ABaAabAB" (capital letters indicate the refrain of the text).

One of Machaut's most important achievements was the development of the "ballade" or "cantilena" style.  This style is exemplified in his polyphonic virelais and rondeaux, as well as in the forty-one "ballades notees," so called to distinguish them from his poetic ballades without music.  Machaut's ballades, whose form was in part a heritage from the trouveres, normally consisted of three or four stanzas, each sung to the same music and each ending with a refrain. The formula for the ballade is similar to that of the "Bar" of the Minnesinger; it may be diagrammed "aabC," in which C stands for the refrain.  Machaut wrote ballades with two, three, and four parts and for various combinations of voices with instruments; but the typical setting was for high tenor solo voice with two lower, more slowly moving instrumental parts.  These instrumental parts, the tenor and the contratenor, were similar in melodic style and moved within the same range, constantly crossing.

Musical Works/Examples

Machaut's rondeaux have a highly sophisticated musical content, and one of them is an often cited example of ingenuity.  Its enigmatic tenor text -- "Ma fin est mon commencement et mon commencement ma fin" (My end is my beginning and my beginning my end) -- means that the melody of the tenor is that of the topmost voice sung backward;  the melody of the contratenor also illustrates the text, because its second half is the reverse of its first half.

The most famous musical composition of the 14th century is Machaut's "Messe de Notre Dame" (Mass of Our Lady), a four-part setting of the Ordinary of the Mass together with the dismissal formula "Ite, missa est."  Machaut's mass setting is important, not because it was the first (it wasn't), but because of its spacious dimensions and four-part texture (unusual at the time), because it is clearly planned as a musical whole, and because it is by any standard a first-rate work.

In his Mass, the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei are based on Gregorian tenors and are wholly or partly isorhythmic.  Both the Gloria and the Credo, probably because of the length of their texts, are given a straight conductus-like setting in syllabic style; their extraordinarily austere music, full of parallel progressions, strange dissonances, chromatic chords, and abrupt pauses, is organized in a free strophic form, a series of musical "stanzas" articulated by conspicuous similar cadences.  For the most part the music of the Mass remains on a lofty impersonal plane, without attempting to reflect any of the emotional suggestions implicit in the text.  There is, however, one striking exception in the Credo: at the words "ex Maria Virgine" the movement suddenly slows to long-held chords, thus bringing this phrase into strong relief.  In the Masses of later composers it became customary to set off this entire portion of the Credo, from the words "Et incarnatus est" through "et homo factus est," by the same means, using a slower rhythm and more impressive style to emphasize these central statements of the Creed.