Guillaume de Machaut

views updated May 23 2018

Guillaume de Machaut

Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) was the greatest French composer of his century, the creator of the first complete polyphonic Mass setting, and a renowned poet.

Guillaume de Machaut was born in the village of Machault in Champagne, near Reims. He became a cleric, and in 1323 he joined the household of King John of Bohemia as a secretary. John was the son of one German emperor and the father of another; his ancestral castle was Luxembourg. He was also the brother-in-law of one French king and later became the father-in-law of another, and his closest associations were with the French court. One of the most traveled noblemen of Europe and involved in numerous military campaigns, John took his secretary with him to Bohemia, Prussia, Poland, Lithuania, and Italy.

Later John settled Machaut at Reims with a canonicate. There Machaut lived from about 1340 on, quietly and peacefully, except for frequent trips to Paris and hunting expeditions; he was joined by his brother in 1355 and by his student, the poet Eustache Deschamps, who may have been his nephew. Machaut always kept in close touch with the royal family, and his last patron was Jean de France, Duke of Berry, the grandson of King John and brother of King Charles V of France. The Duke of Berry was one of the greatest art patrons of all time. The most beautiful of the five manuscripts that contain all Machaut's works was written for the duke under Machaut's personal supervision. Because of this "complete edition," Machaut's output reaches us fully and is the most voluminous of any composer before the 15th century.

In 1374 Machaut's brother died, and in April 1377 Guillaume followed him. Two poems written by Deschamps in May commemorate his death; shortly thereafter they were set to music by a composer of the younger generation, Andrieu, and they constitute the earliest such "complaint" about a poet or composer.

His Works

In his poetry and in his life Machaut shows himself conscious of his lowly origin but also of his worth. He is dignified, but he can be rollicking and rustic; he is realistic and honest rather than formal. Machaut describes nature as he saw it, responds to the events of his day as a poet-historian, and gives a very honest account of his last love affair, that with Peronne, a girl of 18 or 20, with whom he fell in love during his early 60s; elsewhere he records the names of some eight other girls he had loved. But the majority of his poetry deals with love in the manner of the trouvères, whose style he sought to revive. In fact, he was the last composer outside of Germany to write monophonic songs like those of the trouvères.

Machaut's works can be divided into four categories. The first consists of larger poetic works: seven historical poems (dits); Le Remède de fortune, in part a textbook of poetry; Le Veoir dit (1362-1365), the story of his last love; La Prise d'Alexandrie (ca. 1370), chronicling the sack of Alexandria by the king of Cyprus in 1365; and seven others. Several of these works contain poems set to music. The second group comprises his shorter poems: La Louange desdames, some 270 poems in praise of women; and about 50 complaints and other poems. The third category includes poems set to his own music: 19 lais; 23 motets, with 2 texts each; and 101 pieces in the standard forms of the period (formes fixes) —ballade, virelai, and rondeau. The fourth group consists of two large musical works: the hocket David and a Mass. Many of these works reappear in manuscripts other than the five of his "complete edition," proving the composer's widespread fame. They are all available in modern editions.

Musical Technique

Machaut's musical technique represents the ars nova, or new music, of the 14th century, championed by Philippe de Vitry in the preceding generation. It employs duple meter alongside the previously explored triple meter; the triad; isorhythm, that is, a lengthy rhythmic pattern applied to changing melodic phrases; and complex, often syncopated rhythm. Machaut also seems to have introduced such artifices as reading a melody backward; and his accompanied songs—a melody accompanied by two instruments—are the first of the genre to reach us, since those of Philippe de Vitry are lost.

In his Remède de fortune, Machaut teaches several form types, among them the lai, the complaint, the chanson royale, and the formes fixes. His lais are in 12 stanzas, each subdivided into two or four pairs of lines, sung to the same melody; all line pairs differ in length and rhythm, and therefore melodically, except that the last stanza is sung to the music of the first one. Of Machaut's 25 lais 19 are set to music, monophonically (for one unaccompanied voice only), but in two of them monophonic stanzas alternate with canonic ones (of the type of the modern round, then called a chace).

The complaint is a poem of many (30-50) stanzas of 4X4 lines each. When sung—only one of some 15 by Machaut is set to music (monophonically)—all stanzas are sung to the same music, each stanza falling into two repeated sections.

The chanson royale is a poem of 5 stanzas of 8-11 lines and a refrain of 3-4 lines. Only one of Machaut's eight chansons royales is set to music (monophonically).

Ballade, virelai, and rondeau are related forms, all derived from the dance, though only some rondeaux were still connected with dancing at the time. All involve a refrain which is repeated in all stanzas and may comprise 6-20 lines or more. Most of these poems are set to music: 20 of the 21 rondeaux, each for one sung part and one to three instrumental parts; 32 of 38 virelais, most of them monophonically, but some for voice plus one or two instruments; and 42 ballades, mostly for voice and one or two instruments.

To these types must be added the motet, the hocket, and the Mass. The motet, created shortly before 1200 as a liturgical work, soon became the chief type of serious secular art music. Machaut's motets are among the most artful of the century. Whereas isorhythm appears infrequently in the ballades and rondeaux and not at all in the other form types described above, it is ubiquitous in the motets. They are all written for two sung parts—sung to different texts, two, indeed, to one French and one Latin text simultaneously—and either one or two instrumental parts. The majority are secular, but some are liturgical.

The hocket David is one of the last works, and the longest, of a type created during the 13th century. In a hocket two parts alternately give out snatches of a melody, here above an isorhythmic cantus firmus (preexisting melody).

Machaut's Mass is probably the outstanding musical work of the entire 14th century. It is a polyphonic setting of the entire Mass Ordinary (the portions sung at every Mass except at the Requiem Mass, the Mass for the Dead), consisting of six sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est (the last section is rarely set by other composers). Only one such complete setting, the Mass of Tournai (ca. 1300), compiled from various composers, antedates Machaut's, and it is artistically not comparable. Machaut's Mass may have been composed for the Marian Feasts at a chapel served by the Machaut brothers in the 1350s (but it was not, as is often said, written for or sung at the coronation of King Charles V in 1364). The long texts of the Gloria and Credo are set simply in chordal style, each followed by an elaborate Amen. All the other sections are composed in the style of the isorhythmic motet. Almost the entire work is written in four melodic lines, for voices and instruments, and all the sections are unified by a pervasive motif, a technique not employed before or within the following 60 years or so.

There was no one in France during the second half of the 14th century and the first quarter of the 15th to even remotely approach Machaut's musical eminence. In fact, all composers followed his lead and adopted his style, developing it only with respect to an increasingly mannered complexity, which parallels the late Gothic, or mannered, style of architecture prevailing during the period.

Further Reading

The fullest account in English of Machaut's life is in Siegmund Levarie, Guillaume de Machaut (1954), and of his works in Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960). All of Machaut's music is available in modern transcriptions and much of it on records. □

Machaut, Guillaume de

views updated May 17 2018


14th-century poet and ars nova composer (also Machault, Machauld, Machaud); b. Machault, France, c. 1300; d. Reims, c. 1377. Sometime secretary to John of Luxembourg (king of Bohemia) and later a canon of Reims cathedral, he achieved renown for his secular lais, ballades, rondeaux, and chansons, for the remarkable structure of his motets, of which six are of undoubted liturgical intent, and for the masterly design of his Messe de Notre Dame. The motets, because of their use of isorhythmic tenors and resulting long-held notes (see motet), sometimes recall earlier techniques such as organum. In rhythmic subtlety and harmonic interest they are forward-looking. In the Mass, he unified the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite missa est by skillful use of isorhythm; the Gloria and Credo were set in a direct and declamatory style, thus providing contrast in texture and the necessary freedom demanded by longer texts. His poetry was influenced by Ovid, St. bede, and other Latin poets, and in its turn became a source for Chaucer and other writers. In style it is a step away from the generalized romanticism of the trouvères in the direction of the more personal idiom of Villon, with a certain preoccupation with form that marks the decline of medieval poetry and the beginnings of a new French school.

Bibliography: g. machaut, Musikalische Werke, ed. f. ludwig, 4 v. (Leipzig 192654); Opera, ed. g. de van (Corpus mensurabilis musicae 2; 1949); Oeuvres, ed. e. hoepffner (Paris 190821). a. machabey, G. de Machaut, 2 v. (Paris 1955). s. levarie, Guillaume de Machaut (New York 1954). s. j. williams, The Music of Guillaume de Machaut (Doctoral diss. unpub. Yale U. 1952). g. reaney, "Ars Nova in France," New Oxford History of Music, ed. j. a. westrup, 11 v. (New York 1957) 3: 130. l. schrade, ed., Polyphonic Music of the 14th Century, 4 v. (Monaco 195658), v.23, with comment. g. reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York 1940) 347359. w. a. nitze and e. p. dargan, A History of French Literature (3d ed. New York 1938). l. m. earp, Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research (New York, 1995). Machaut's World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century, conference proceedings (New York 1978). w. calin, A Poet at the Fountain: Essays on the Narrative Verse of Guillaume de Machaut (Lexington, Ky. 1974). d. leech-wilkinson, Machaut's Mass: An Introduction (Oxford 1990). y. plumley, "Guillaume de Machaut 700 Years On," Early Music, vol. 28, no. 3 (2000) 487. d. leech-wilkinson, "'Le Voir Dit' and 'La Messe de Nostre Dame': Aspects of Genre and Style in the Late Works of Machaut," Plainsong and Medieval Music 2, no. 1 (1993) 43.

[d. stevens]

Machaut, Guillaume de

views updated Jun 11 2018

Guillaume de Machaut

c. 1300–1377

Cathedral canon

Court and Church.

Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377) was the most famous and influential French composer and poet of the fourteenth century. As his name indicates, Guillaume was born in Machaut, a small town in northern France. He was educated in Rheims, entered the priesthood, and in 1323 was employed as secretary to King John of Bohemia, traveling with him to many parts of Europe. Following John's death in 1346, Guillaume served at some of the most influential courts in France, including those of Charles, king of Navarre; Jean, duke of Berry; and Charles, duke of Normandy (later King Charles V). He eventually retired to the position of canon (a member of the clergy on permanent staff) at Rheims Cathedral.

Motets, Dits, and Popular Genres.

Machaut contributed significant poetry and musical compositions in nearly every genre of the period including the newest, most advanced forms as well as the most traditional. He wrote music in both the monophonic and polyphonic styles, with compositions for sacred occasions as well as motets for secular ceremonies and love songs. Much of the subject matter of his secular work is heavily influenced by the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), the long allegorical poem from the thirteenth century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. His largest secular compositions (known as dits) are sets of poems and musical compositions that contain idealized characters, issues, and situations from the courtly love tradition. The longest of these, the Livre dou voir dit (True Story), thought to be somewhat autobiographical and written in his later years, concerns a love affair between a young girl, Péronne d'Armentières, and an aging poet. Another dit, the Remede de Fortune, includes seven musical compositions, each in a different form, probably intended to provide a model of each of the most popular genres of the period.

An Innovative Mass.

Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) is outstanding and unusual for a number of reasons: it is in four voice-parts throughout (at a time when three-part writing was far more common); the individual movements are much longer than comparable movements of other composers of the time; and it is the first known composition of the movements of the Mass Ordinary by a single composer intended to be performed intact, an idea that would become popular nearly 100 years later. At the end of his life Guillaume assembled all of his compositions into a set of manuscripts, grouping the compositions by formal type.


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).

Machaut, Guillaume de

views updated Jun 08 2018

Machaut, Guillaume de [ Guillaume de Machault] (b Reims, c.1300; d Reims, 1377). Fr. composer, cleric, poet, and diplomat. Secretary to John, Duke of Luxembourg from c.1323 to 1346. Later in service of King of Navarre, King of Cyprus, Duke of Berry, and others. Canon of churches at Reims, Verdun, and S. Quentin. Comp. motet for election of Archbishop of Reims, 1324. Outstanding practitioner of ars nova and among first to comp. polyphonic setting of poetry in fixed forms (ballade, rondeau, and virelai), to write in 4 parts, and to compose integrated setting of entire Ordinary of the Mass. Also among last to compose in the medieval forms of lai and dit. His most important works are probably the Messe de Notre Dame for 4 vv. and the Voir Dit (Tale of Truth), a collection of letters, lyrics, and song-settings (ballades and rondeaux) written in praise of a woman (Péronne d'Armentières). Machaut's works, which incl. 23 motets, have appeared in 3 complete edns., by Ludwig (1926, 1954), Schrade (1956), and Sylvette Leguy (Paris, from 1977).

Machaut, Guillaume de

views updated May 14 2018

Machaut, Guillaume de (1300–77) French poet, musician, and diplomat. His best-known poetry, which influenced Chaucer and anticipated the ballade and the rondeau, is to be found in Le livre de Voir-dit. A leading figure of the ars nova, he was among the first to compose polyphonic settings of poetry and the Mass.

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