If ever there was a renaissance man then Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) was such a man, I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate his importance as the single most important 14th century poet and composer or his lasting history of influence on French poetry and European music. The man was unique, his extant works consist mostly of poetry that has not been – and was not intended to be, set to music. His poetic output was enormous some such as the Remede de Fortune were consciously composed as paradigms of lyric genres, others are in the tradition of the Roman de la rose, yet others such as the Loange des dames with its 280 poems ‘ou il n’a point de chant’ (‘where there is no music’) developed the tradition of the amours courtois. De Machaut’s work, and how he presented and preserved it represents a significant step forward in literature towards what we think of as a book.
His place in the history of music is even more certain his lais are remarkably assured and skillful and represent a highpoint in the history of the lai, while his motets and secular songs in addition to his lais developed and enhanced the rondeau, the virelai, the ballade. But it’s his setting of the Mass that concerns me here it’s easy enough to write that Machaut’s setting was the first through-composed setting of the Mass by an individual, but what does that mean? And why was it important?
De Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame was an important event because, surprising though it might seem, prior to the Messe de Nostre Dame polyphonic composers abstained from composing settings of the Mass concentrating their efforts instead on the texts set for that particular day or feast – the ‘The Propers of the Mass’. Machaut’s innovation was to set those texts, or sections, of the Mass found in all Masses throughout the Church Year (‘The Ordinary of the Mass’) and linked them a development that led eventually to the Renaissance Masses which are both balanced and linked musically.
It was this presentation of the Mass as entity which was so innovative and I suspect more than somewhat startling to his contemporaries. He set it in four parts throughout and made full use of the techniques that he had developed in his secular works. It’s a medieval work and such Machaut’s setting does not delve into the possibilities of each phrase or word concentrating instead on the structure as a whole and the symbolism within that structure of each part. Thus in the Credo Machaut’s tripartite musical structure reflects and expresses the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The other movements make use of what medieval musicians called ‘colour’ and ‘talea‘ and modern musicologists call isorythm, whatever you call it the technique is the same and involves the repetition of a rhythmic pattern throughout a section. Thus in the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est of Machaut’s Mass the lower voices (tenor and contratenor) each have their own melody repeated in a rhythmic pattern determined in the case of the tenor by plainchant while the contratenor part is free composed. The upper parts in these sections are independent melodically and engage in the type of rhythmic crossfire known as hocketting. The longer movements use variations in form instead of isorythm to achieve the symmetrical effect Machaut desired and it is perhaps this careful attention to form and to symmetry that was the most radical of Machaut’s innovations.
The music of the Messe de Nostre Dame can sound strange to our modern ears but it repays careful listening if only because it is the foundation of much of the music we think of as modern. It’s performed below in a performance broadcast from Thoronet Abbey in 2011 by Mezzo given by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois directed by Dominique Vellard. Enjoy :-).
Video Source: Machaut – Messe de Notre Dame (abbaye de Thoronet, Ens. G. Binchois, dir. D. Vellard).avi – YouTube Uploaded on May 24, 2011 by Caballerito de Arratia