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CHAPTER 12. FOURTEENTH-CENTURY MUSIC IN REIMS: GUILLUAME DE MACHAUT. The poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut at work one of the earliest portraits of a Western artist.

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chapter 12


the poet composer guillaume de machaut at work one of the earliest portraits of a western artist
The poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut at work one of the earliest portraits of a Western artist

Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) spent most of productive life in Reims, a city situated about a hundred miles northeast of Paris and then possessing a population of about 20,000. Machaut was a canon at the cathedral of Reims, yet he was a poet and composer as well. His poetry includes fifteen long narrative stories and a collection of 280 short poems he chose not to set to music. Machaut’s music is almost entirely vocal. His settings of his own vernacular poetry include 42 ballades, 22 rondeaux, 33 virelais, and 19 lais (monophonic songs using the form of the sequence). In addition, he composed 23 mostly religious motets, a four-voice polyphonic Mass, and a hocket.

Machaut lived in Reims during two calamitous events that marked the fourteenth century:
    • the Black Death, a bubonic plague that swept across Europe during 1348-1351
    • the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) an “on again, off again” war between the English and French that dragged on for more than a century.
  • Some of Machaut’s motets make reference to these events, ones he personally experienced.

The term hocket derives from the Latin word hoquetus (hicuup). Hocket is both a contrapuntal technique and a musical genre that appeared toward the end of the Middle Ages. It occurs when the sounds of two voices are staggered by the careful placement of rests, thereby creating a highly syncopated texture and composition. Machaut’s three-voice Hoquetus David, perhaps written for the coronation of King Chares V at Reims in 1364, is the most famous example of hocket.

A passage from Machaut’s Hoquetus David showing the syncopation that is the hallmark of hocket.

machaut and the formes fixes

By the fourteenth century French musicians, influenced by the trouvères, had come to compose almost all of their secular art songs in one of three formes fixes(fixed forms): ballade, rondeau, and virelai. These forms were employed for both monophonic and polyphonic secular art music. The ballade followed the pattern AAB. The term ballade style refers to the composition style often found in polyphonic ballades of Machaut and his contemporaries. The highest voice, called the cantus or melody, carries the tune and is supported by slower-moving lower voices.

The beginning of Machaut’s three-voice ballade

Je puis trop bien (c1335)

  • The medieval rondeau follows the form ABaAabAB. There are two musical sections (a and b). Sometimes a or b is used to set a text refrain (represented by a capital letter) and sometimes a or b is used to set a new line of poetry (represented by a lower case letter). Machaut’s rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement is both a good example of the form of the rondeau and a famous instance of retrograde motion—the tenor part is the cantus line but going backward; the contratenor goes forward for half the piece and then backward.
the form of machaut s rondeau ma fin est mon commencement
The form of Machaut’s rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement

Cantus: 1 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40

Tenor: 40 35 30 25 20 15 10 5 1

Contratenor: 1 5 10 15 20 15 10 5 1

Ma fin est mon commencement A My end is my beginning

E mon commencement ma fin.B And my beginning my end.

Et teneüre vraiëment a This much is clear.

Ma fin est mon commencementAMy end is my beginning

Mes tiers chans iij fois seulement a My third voice sings three times only

Se retrograde et einsi fin. b in retrograde, and then is done.

Ma fin est mon commencementAMy end is my beginning

Et mon commencement ma fin.Band my beginning my end.

  • The form of the virelai can simply be represented as AbbaA. There are two musical sections (a and b) as well as a textual refraim (A) sung to music a. When the virelai has three strophes, as in Machaut’s Douce dame jolie (Fair sweet lady), the form that results is AbbaAbbaAbbaA.
machaut s mass of our lady
  • Machaut’s most famous work is his Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady), composed for four voices during the 1360s. This Mass is important in the history of music on at least four counts:

1) It is the first polyphony setting of all parts of the Ordinary of the Mass.

2) It is the first cyclicMass—all the movements are linked by a common musical theme, a distinctive descending motive that appears in the cantus voice in each movement.

3) It demonstrates a new approach to sonority; the voices are spread out to cover a larger part of the sonic spectrum; the cantus is placed higher and the bass (contratenor bassus) is placed lower.

4) It exploits the double leading-tone cadence in which there is not only a leading tone pulling to the 8th degree in the final chord, but also one pulling by half- step to the fifth degree.

Passages from the Kyrie of Machaut’s Mass of Our Lady showing both the wider range of the voices as well as a double leading-tone cadence.