Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame

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Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame

A Unified Mass.

Sometime before 1365 the French poet and cleric Guillaume de Machaut composed a new work including the five sections of the Mass Ordinary— Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus—plus the dismissal, the Ite Missa Est ("Go, the Mass is done"). As a point of unification, the composer selected relevant chants for each section as the borrowed tenor of each movement (that is, a Kyrie chant for his Kyrie, and so on). Each of these came from chants that were assigned for feasts in honor of the Blessed Virgin. In doing this he created the earliest unified set of Mass Ordinary movements. What is unusual about this concept, in addition to the fact that there is no similar model on the level of the chant practices, is that in the celebration of the Mass, with the exception of the Kyrie and Gloria, the items of the Ordinary are separated from one another by a number of different prayers and chants, that is, they are not performed one after the other as in a modern-day concert performance, and therefore to think of these Mass items on the level of an artistic whole is to impose an abstract artistic idea on something that had never been considered from that point of view. The original intention for creating this rather unusual assembly of polyphonic movements was for use at the special mass in honor of the Virgin Mary (the Messe de Nostre Dame or "Mass of Our Lady"), which since 1341 had been celebrated on Saturdays in one of the chapels in Reims Cathedral, where Machaut was a canon (a member of the clergy on the permanent staff). Later, however, in conformity with the wills of both Guillaume and his brother Jean (who also was a canon at the cathedral), the mass was transformed into a memorial service for the two of them following their deaths (Jean in 1372, Guillaume in 1377).

Style, Function, and Form.

The individual movements of the Mass of Notre Dame employ two distinctly separate structural models and styles, dictated at least in part by the function and form of the movement itself. For the four movements with relatively small amounts of text—Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est—Machaut chose the style he used in his elaborate motets: the upper lines proceed with more or less independent rhythmic motion and long rhapsodic (that is, somewhat irregular and richly decorative) melodic sections over a tenor set in isorhythm (see above, "Complexities"). Unlike his motets, however, there is only a single text in each movement, which is sung by all four voices. The texts of both Gloria and Credo are quite lengthy, and therefore Machaut set these movements in a style reminiscent of the earlier discant style (see above, "Notre Dame Organum") having short phrases, similar rhythmic motion in all parts, and a low ratio of notes per syllable of text, both ending with long, rhapsodic sections for the final word, "Amen." An additional feature of the Mass of Notre Dame was that it was for four voices rather than the more common three; Machaut added a voice called contratenor (meaning "against the tenor") that moved in the same low range as the tenor part, sometimes replacing it as the lowest voice.

Innovation and Influence.

Machaut's innovations, both the assembling of a complete set of Ordinary movements and the expansion to four-voice texture, became an important influence on sacred musical composition for the next several hundred years. One additional detail also was copied by most composers to follow him; in setting the phrase "Et incarnatus est" ("and He was made flesh") in the Credo, Machaut abruptly stops the motion in all parts so that each syllable is sustained, and then returns to the previous pace, thus drawing attention to a key Christian belief. Although the techniques and styles have changed over the centuries, the concept that originated in the late Middle Ages of a single composer organizing all of the Ordinary movements of a mass into an artistic whole persists to the present day and includes such universally acclaimed contributions as Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor.


Gilbert Reaney, Machaut (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).

Anne Walters Robertson, Guillaume de Machaut at Reims: Context and Meaning in his Musical Works (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame

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