Guillaume de Machaut was the last great poet who was also a composer. As late as the fifteenth century, high style poetry and music were intimately linked in sentiment and use, which makes it surprising that Machaut was the last person to practise both at the highest level. Yet in each field he was immensely influential. His poetry was admired and imitated by French poets and by Chaucer, his music by composers throughout Europe well into the fifteenth century.
This disc presents a selection of related works composed by Machaut in the 13605. We can think of this as Machaut’s ’late period’ not just because he was, by medieval standards, well into his old age, but also because the music and the poetry have that serenity and other-worldly perfection that we find in late Beethoven or Stravinsky. Although on the face of it the Mass and these songs are very different—the Mass, his most famous work, is rooted in the liturgy of the church and dedicated to the Virgin; the late songs, still very little known, are messages of courtly love—in their musical substance they have much in common. It seems likely that they were written during the same few years (c. l360–65) and that Machaut worked out in their very different forms musical ideas that filled his imagination at that time.
La Messe de Nostre Dame is one of the earliest, perhaps the earliest setting of the ordinary of the Mass as a whole. Machaut probably composed it for performance at the Saturday Lady Mass celebrated in Reims cathedral at a small altar near the choir screen. His intention seems to have been that it would function as a Mass in honour of the Virgin during the remainder of his life, but that after his death it would become a memorial Mass for himself and his brother Jean, like Guillaume a canon of the cathedral. In due course the brothers were buried together near the altar, and the Mass presumably continued to be sung over them for many years, perhaps even as late as the early fifteenth century.
For this performance we went back to Reims cathedral in order, as far as possible, to record the Mass in its original acoustics. The altar to the Virgin was set against the screen, on the right of the entrance to the choir, so that the singers would have had behind them a wall of wood or perhaps stone, reflecting their sound back into the nave. Both screen and altar were removed after the Revolution, so for this performance the singers were placed in front of the organ immediately east of the choir step, which gave them a similar sounding-board while retaining the) larger acoustics of that part of the building. The performance was recorded using Sensaura and matches with striking fidelity the sound of the performance in the building. The recording was made over two nights in sub-zero temperatures, both factors that may have affected the acoustics, but what we hear in this recording is as close as we can get, at present, to the sound of Machaut’s Mass in its original setting.
There are other ways in which this performance differs from previous versions. The Kyrie is sung to Machaut’s polyphony in all nine sections, following the unambiguous indications of the manuscripts. The Credo plainchant intonation is sung at an alternative pitch found in some northern French manuscripts of the period but not common today, since it leads more naturally into Machaut’s polyphony. The Ite missa est is sung polyphonically, despite liturgical custom, because that is indicated in some of the Machaut manuscripts and because it seems to work. And the singers experimented freely with plicas—notational signs indicating some kind of ornament—whose meaning is uncertain but which appear frequently, and for the last time, in Machaut’s Mass.
Le Livre dou Voir Dit is one of most extraordinary poems of the Middle Ages. Its 9,094 lines of verse, arranged in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, tell the story of the love between the elderly Machaut and an adolescent admirer, Peronne. They exchange letters and lyric poems, some set to music by Machaut, and all these are included, inserted into the narrative. Because the composition of poetry and music forms part of the story, Machaut discusses it in the letters and narrative, and we thus have unique testimony to a medieval composer’s understanding of his own work.
Ploures dames is the first poem with music that Machaut sends to Peronne, enclosing it in a letter from summer 1362. ‘I’m sending you a ballade about the sad state I’ve been in, and I ask that you learn the song, for it’s not difficult and the music pleases me very much.’ The text takes the form of a will written on the poet’s death-bed, in which he leaves his heart to the women whom his poetry has always praised.
Nes qu’on porroit, the next ballade with music that Machaut sends (in April 1363), has a strikingly similar setting with many of the same melodic ideas. Yet its text is very different, a reminder that medieval music was rarely concerned to mimic words. Machaut tells the reader of Le Voir Dit that he ‘composed this ballade from joyous and agreeable feelings’ and tells Peronne in the accompanying letter that he has made it ’in the guise of a German dance [res d’alemangne—the precise meaning is unclear], and by God it’s a long time since I’ve made anything so good; in my opinion. And the tenors are as sweet as unsalted gruel. So I beg you to deign to hear it and get to know it just as it was made, without adding or omitting anything. And it should be sung in good long measure. And if anyone could arrange it for organ, bagpipes or other instruments that would be its very nature.’
Sans cuer dolens is included in Le Voir Dit as Machaut leaves Peronne, on or about Friday 12 May 1363, after their first stay together. He claims to have composed it on the road home, but in fact it is an earlier song, already included in a manuscript of his work compiled c. 1350, and Machaut probably inserted it here because of its appropriate text. This is not the only time that Machaut sends Peronne old poems as if they were new, and on a subsequent occasion, as we shall see, he gets caught out.
Longuement me sui tenus, the Lay de Bonne Esperence (Lay of Good Hope), belongs to an allegorical episode in the story, in which Machaut is taken hostage by the personification of Hope, and is released by her only on condition that he writes a lay in her honour. The lay was by far the largest of the lyric forms used by Machaut, and develops through twelve stanzas, each with two- or four-fold statements of its poetic scheme and music. It is the only monophonic song in Le Voir Dit.
Puis qu’en oubli is not named in the narrative or letters, but in its uniquely low and accompanimental lower voices corresponds exactly to this description in a letter to Peronne of 29 September 1363: ‘I’m sending you a rondel with music of which I made the tune and the text some time ago, but I’ve newly made the tenor and contratenor; should you like to get to know, it seems to me good.’ Peronne, however, is unimpressed and replies, ‘I have had a rondel with music that you sent me, but I’ve seen it several times and know it well. I ask you please to send me others.’
Dix et sept is mentioned in several letters before Machaut finally sends the music, and thus we learn a number of interesting things about it. He sends the text in late July 1363, explaining that it encodes her name (17=R, 5=E, 13=N, 14=O, 15=P), and promising music by the next messenger he finds. Why he cannot send it at once becomes clear only in his letter of 9 October: ‘My very sweet heart, I’ve made the rondel where your name is, and I would have sent it to you by this messenger, but by my soul I’ve not yet heard it, and I’m not accustomed to part with things that I’ve made until I’ve heard them. And be certain that it’s one of the best things I’ve made for seven years, in my opinion…And learn your rondel please, for I like it a lot.’
©1996 Daniel Leech-Wilkinson
ReviewsThis is the closest anyone has yet come to recording Machaut's setting as he himself might have heard it; the coupling is a sampling of songs from Le Voir Dit, another intriguingly autobiographical offering. - Ted Libbey, Early Music America, July 2001