Guillaume de Machaut : the best-known composer/poet of the 14th century

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Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) is the most well-known composer of the 14th century.  I can make this statement with complete confidence of its veracity.  Machaut had a day job, he worked for John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, from ‘around twelve years’ before 1330 until at least 1333 (and probably until 1346) (Leach, Elizabeth Eva. “Guillaume de Machaut, royal almoner: Honte, paour (B25) and Donnez, signeurs (B26) in context.” Early Music 38.1 (2010): 21-42.)

These duties positioned and provided Machaut with the skill set and resources to preserve his music to a degree unavailable for most of his contemporaries.  As a result we have no problem of attribution, and at least two complete books of his works which were if not completely made by Machaut under his close supervision.  The ordering of the works in these volumes is especially important, and something Machaut no doubt controlled.

How these books were organized is something Machaut took great care to achieve.  He purposely meant to link certain songs/poems to ones that might appear earlier or later in the folio.  Some of the songs are notated, some are not; and there is some duplication with a lyric appearing notated in one section and then as a text.  But the placement of a text among others is one way in which Machaut strove to add meaning to each poem or song.

Machaut wrote court music, and his lais or chansons were meant to provide solace to the nobility.  The men and women of a Medieval court had regular and close contact would develop affections.  However because of the mores of the time in almost all cases these affections could not be acted upon, which would often lead to unrequited love.  The men of the time were expected to be faithful servants to ladies of the court but to never overstep the boundaries of these relationships.  Many of Machaut’s lyrics paint a picture of a courtier in love with an unavailable lady.  Machaut’s songs offer solace for these individuals in the form of “hope”.

During the Medieval period emotions were somewhat formalized: Hope; Desire; Memory; Mercy could represent ideas different to how we think of them today.  For Machaut’s courtiers, Desire (for the lady) would produce hopelessness since the desire could not be fulfilled.  And Memory (Souvenir) often led to Desire.  It is common in a Machaut song that he will offer Hope for something less than physical love, a kind glance or word (Mercy) between the lovers would be enough, it had to be enough, under the circumstances. Machaut would counsel his audience to use memory (Souvenir) to conjure images of these kinds of interactions and be happy (Hope) with what they could achieve instead of lamenting over what was out of reach (Desire).

Machaut functioned as something of a wise teacher, worldly counselor, compassionate pastor and musical poet.

Since Machaut was so good at documenting his complete output it has led to him being the most recorded of all medieval composers.  Despite there being multiple recordings of the same works, these recordings are not necessarily duplicative because of the difference in how performers might interpret the notation.orlando_1

One group that has done a very good job with Machaut, is the Orlando Consort.

Formed in 1988 by the Early Music Network of Great Britain, the Orlando Consort rapidly achieved a reputation as one of Europe’s most expert and consistently challenging groups performing repertoire from the years 1050 to 1550. Their work successfully combines captivating entertainment and fresh scholarly insight; the unique imagination and originality of their programming together with their superb vocal skills has marked the Consort out as the outstanding leaders of their field. (Orlando Consort website.)

The Orlando Consort has quite recently released two recordings of Machaut’s music.

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The Orlando Consort’s latest venture is perhaps their most ambitious yet: to record all of Machaut’s polyphonic chansons.  Like many of their recording projects, its roots are planted firmly in musicological soil. In 2010 Yolanda Plumley was awarded a grant by the Leverhulme Trust to create the first modern-day edition of Machaut’s music and poetry. The Orlando Consort had known Plumley for several years—indeed, she had been a co-organizer of a joint session on Ars Subtilior in 2000—and she wanted The Orlando Consort and the instrumental ensemble Le Basile to record short examples to demonstrate issues of scoring, ficta, alternate readings etc., which would then be made available on the web.

The group would also offer comments on the various editing strategies proposed by the board of Plumley, Anne Stone, Jacques Boogart, Barton Palmer, Tamsyn Rose-Steel and Uri Smilansky.  The involvement of the Orlando Consort in the project prompted the group to approach Hyperion Records, and the outcome is that the first disc—of music from Machaut’s Le Voir Dit, shortlisted for The Gramophone Early Music Award—was released in October 2013, with the second coming out in 2014. (Greig , Donald. “Sightlines and tramlines: The Orlando Consort at 25.” Early Music 43:1 (2015): 129-144.)

machaut_binchoisAmong the other recordings a few could serve as good introductions to Machaut.  Brilliant classics released a 3-CD (including a DVD) of the sacred and secular music performed by the Gilles Binchois Ensemble.  Since 1979 Dominique Vellard has been the inspirational driving force behind the Ensemble Gilles Binchois : more than 35 years of research and performance that have led to the creation of some of the essential recordings, especially of music from the medieval and Renaissance periods. An outstanding catalogue of recordings devoted to the music of Machaut, the Notre-Dame School, the Burgundian repertoire, early french polyphony or the spanish Renaissance, on labels such as Virgin Classics, Harmonic Records, Ambroisie, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Glossa y Aparté, have met public, critical and musicological acclaim. The Ensemble Gilles Binchois performs regularly mostrly across Europe, but also in Morocco, India, Malaysia USA and South America. (Gilles Binchois website.)

machaut_music_novaMusica Nova has recorded the Motets.  Formed in 2000, the Musica Nova ensemble unites singers and musicians under the artistic direction of singer and conductor Lucien Kandel. A passionate quest in search of emotion through music drives the group to produce a diverse musical programme. From the Middles Age to Baroque, Musica Nova departs into various musical periods and universes. The ensemble approaches its music with an eye for historical accuracy, through the use of original manuscripts. Working with the documents from the era is conducted with reflection upon the musical rules of the time (such as musica ficta and pronunciation) as well as the intended nuances of the pieces. The singers and musicians read their music in facsimile and their interpretation of it is thus inevitably modified. The result is a sound, a movement, a line, which makes Musica Nova so exceptionally rich and vibrant; the acoustic of which transports the listener; temporally and spiritually. The Musica Nova Ensemble appears on prestigious stages in France and all over the world. Recordings of their works are available, some of which have set the standard for current adaptations of the musical style. The ensemble approaches its music with an eye for historical accuracy, through the use of original manuscripts. Working with the documents from the era is conducted with reflection upon the musical rules of the time (such as musica ficta and pronunciation) as well as the intended nuances of the pieces. The singers and musicians read their music in facsimile and their interpretation of it is thus inevitably modified. The result is a sound, a movement, a line, which makes Musica Nova so exceptionally rich and vibrant; the acoustic of which transports the listener; temporally and spiritually. The Musica Nova Ensemble appears on prestigious stages in France and all over the world. Recordings of their works are available, some of which have set the standard for current adaptations of the musical style. (Musica Nova Wikipedia article.)

And one of the best, although by a group no longer together is this one put out by the Ensemble Project Ars Nova.  It is tragic this group is no longer recording since their work was some of the best in this repertory.

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As I said at the beginning of this article, Machaut’s music is very well represented on recordings, and there are dozens of very good CDs to choose from.  What I hope to do is to excite your interest in listening to Guillaume de Machaut.

new work for bassoon, horn, double bass, percussion and choir

Just finished this new work for bassoon, horn, double bass, percussion and choir (male) and I fell in love with the ensemble.  This new work lasts right at seven minutes, but I think I am going to write more with this collection of instruments, but featuring different percussion instruments.  This first one uses orchestral chimes.  The next might use a xylophone, and one will definitely use gong and bass drum.  I am especially happy with a contrapuntal section, which is odd for me, I don’t usually write in such a formalized fashion.

Once I’ve written them all, probably no more than 3 or 4, I will collate them into a master score.  But who knows, this might be one of those works that goes on and on for the rest of my life …

bassoon | horn | double bass | chimes | choir [2015-23]

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Pet Sound : Doina Rotaru

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Born in 1951, composer Doina Rotaru has a B.A. and a M.A in composition at the National University of Music in  Bucharest. She studied here between 1970 and 1975  with Tiberiu Olah.  Since 1996 she has been a professor of composition and, since 2008, the head of the composition department at the same University. She has written so far over 100 works that cover almost every musical genre: from solo, chamber, choral to orchestral works, from works that mix instrumental with electronic music to theater music.

UROBOROS – the snake trying to bite its own tail – is an archaic symbol of a cycle with a close evolution. It is like  a continual movement, an eternal return, a circle from which one cannot escape. The five short sections of the work try to suggest two different hypostasis of the space : a static one with inner movements, and a perpetual movement with a centripet and a  centrifugal  force around the sound  E (mi).  Instrumentation: two flutes (flute one doubling piccolo and metal chimes, flute two doubling a little gong)

Robert Craft : Anton Webern

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Robert Craft’s recordings on Naxos Records are excellent.  He has recorded nearly all of the works by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and all are very good versions of these works.  Today I am listening to his Webern sets.

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Anton Webern (1883-1945) was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and along with Alban Berg made up the Second Viennese School.

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These three composers developed Schoenberg’s 12-tone method of composition throughout the first half of the 20th century.

However, Anton Webern was unique in his method and influence, being the composer who more than any other impacted on the Darmstadt group of composers, primarily Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono.

Weber’s entire output only lasts a few hours, and can comfortably fit on three CDs.

Craft presents us with an excellent recording of the Symphony, Op. 21, Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24 and the Six Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 (in their revised version) along with some other pieces.

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There are two other CDs from Craft which complete his traversal of the music of Anton Webern, both collecting the vocal works, but one with chamber music while the other includes the remaining orchestral works.

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass

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Leonard Bernstein was most famous as conductor and for proselytizing Classical Music, he is especially thought of in this manner by those old enough to remember his Young Peoples Concerts series.

“Teaching people – his favorite occupation, really. Descended from rabbis, he was a rabbi at heart, a master teacher. Just listening to Lenny was an education. … There was nothing he’d rather do than stimulate new thoughts for, especially, young minds.” (Burton Bernstein).  

He was also a political figure.  Tom Wolfe coined the phrase “radical chic” to describe Bernstein’s involvement with counter-cultural movements, although that phrase trivializes his commitment to activism, especially to those groups and movements associated with peace.  Leonard Bernstein was larger than life a man who polarized his generation, one of those individuals most people either loved or hated.

However, I think ultimately his legacy will be as a composer.

Among the composers of the 20th century Bernstein’s output might appear to be modest. He was a busy conductor, after all,  but still managed to leave behind an impressive body of work.  Eclecticism was his own personal brand.  He wrote three symphonies, none following the traditional symphonic form, as well as chamber music, music for piano, instrumental sonatas and dozens of art songs.  Still, he is probably most famous for the Broadway masterpiece West Side Story from which he crafted a suite of symphonic dances.  He wrote film scores, his most famous for On The Waterfront.  

But even for a composer known for stylistic inclusiveness Mass is eclecticism brought to the extreme.

Written in 1971 with a with text from the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass but including additional texts written by Stephen Schwartz and himself, it is a work both celebrating and questioning religious faith.  Mass is subtitled, “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” which should give you an idea that this is not a mass setting like any you may have heard before.

Jacqueline Kennedy invited Bernstein to write a work to be performed at the inauguration of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  Because of the venue, and timing, Bernstein chose to write a cathartic work which allowed the audience as well as himself to remember John F. Kennedy but also to give expression to the general political unrest of the times and to wrap all this into a spiritual context.

By the late 1960s, the country had become polarized over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A powerful anti-war movement swept the nation, fueled by outrage at the draft, the massive casualties, atrocities such as the Mai Lai Massacre, incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the imprisonment of conscientious objectors and activists, and in 1970, the Kent State shootings. These turbulent times produced a restless youth culture that hungered for a trustworthy government and for spiritual authority that reflected their values. Mass gave them a voice. (Bernstein website)

Mass is a sprawling work in 17 parts.  It calls for a large pit orchestra, two choruses plus a boy’s choir, a Broadway-sized cast (with ballet company), marching band and a rock band.  In the original review that appeared in The New York Times, Harold C. Schoenberg described it, “The piece is pure Bernstein… Audacious, brilliant, excessive, self-indulgent, sentimental, touching, a cornucopia of genius poured out with no restraint.”

While Bernstein accurately followed the text of the Catholic mass liturgy, he interpolated many other sections: Devotions before and after sections, Interludes, Confessions, Meditations, and others.  These non-liturgical sections might be free-form contemporary classical or jazz infused or pop-rock. The music Bernstein wrote sometimes recalls West Side Story, and will incorporate styles as divergent as folk music to twelve-tone composition.  Like Bernstein the man, you either will love it or hate it.

An original recording conducted by Bernstein came out shortly after the premier in 1971 and was later included as a volume in the Bernstein Century collection.

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Other recordings include one from 2005 by Kent Nagano featuring Jerry Hadley:

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Released in 2009 was a recording conducted by Kristjan Järvi and featuring Randall Scarlata in the lead role:

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There is a complete video of this cast on YouTube from the 2012 BBC Proms:

There is a DVD of a performance of Mass at the Vatican City:

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But the recording I think is the best, also released in 2009, is the one on Naxos conducted by Marin Alsop and starring Jubilant Sykes:

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Here is a review written by Bruce Hodges of a Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony performance in 2008.

The Bernstein website has images of the score and composition notes which offer testimony to Bernstein’s commitment to the political messages of the work.

Mass is a huge multifaceted work, and may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  But, it sure is mine.

new work : piano | percussion | choir [2015-22]

piano | percussion | choir [2015-22] is scored for vibraphone and side drum as the percussion instruments and a four part male choir, along with piano.

All of my works begin with a 12-tone series and are organized fairly strictly according to the principles of 12-tone composition.  However, I will often arrange the series around melodic or intervalic segments which purposely contain tonal elements.  In the case of this work, the series is made up of the intervals perfect 5th and 4th, which yield extended triads such the opening F Major 7th chord repeated by the piano.

The first 30 measures contain a expression of the complete series which is then transposed down a minor 3rd for the next section.  There is a middle section of low chords in the piano and choir while the vibraphone carries a melody which is sequenced in minor 3rds, ending with the inversion of this phrase.  The rest of the piece is roughly reversed, but not an exact retrograde.  The side drum plays throughout as a free ostinato.

There is an alternate version of this piece which contains a recorded track of birdsong.

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Celebrate John Adams

John Luther Adams

And, no, I am not talking about John Adams, the composer of gargantuan inanities such as the opera The Death of Klinghoffer, in which John Adams parades his profound ignorance about the history of the Middle East and attempts to humanize monsters that pitched a wheelchair-bound man overboard the Italian MS Achille Lauro liner for the irredeemable crime of cruising while Jewish.

I am going to write about the other composer named John Adams, more accurately, John Luther Adams: born January 23, 1953; an American composer whose music is inspired by nature, especially the landscapes of Alaska where he has lived since 1978.[i]  Specifically, I will write about his orchestral work Become Ocean which was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Adams describes himself, saying: “My music has always been profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place. Through sustained listening to the subtle resonances of the northern soundscape, I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography—that region between place and culture…between environment and imagination”.[ii]

John Luther Adams has been writing for decades, but has generally been overlooked, that is until relatively recently.  In 2006, Adams was named one of the first United States Artists Fellows, but he truly arrived in a big way in 2014 when Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral piece Become Ocean, which Alex Ross of The New Yorker called “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”.[iii]

John Luther Adams - become ocean

Become Ocean is a large work, in a single movement, and was inspired by the oceans of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  The orchestra is split into three groups, strings, woodwinds and brass sections.  The work is expressed in slow waves of sound, and each section has its own ebb and flow.  The work is fundamentally tonal; diatonic intervals form the basis of staggered chords.  At the point when these sequences come together and the orchestra reaches it sonic climax, the music is played in reverse: the entire piece is a palindrome.

The Seattle Symphony, the institution that commissioned the work, has given us an excellent surround sound recording conducted by Ludovic Morlot.  Alex Ross had this to say after the premier performance:  he “went away reeling” and compared it with The Rite of Spring in its newness of voice and its ability to provide new shocks for a new century.[iv]

Other recent works include:

  • for Lou Harrison (2004) for string quartet, string orchestra, and 2 pianos
  • Dark Waves (2007) for orchestra and electronic sounds
  • The Light Within (2007) for alto flute, bass clarinet, vibraphone/crotales, piano, violin, cello and electronic sounds
  • Inuksuit (2009) for nine to ninety-nine percussion
  • Sila: The Breath of the World (2014) for choir, percussion, strings, brass, and woodwinds

[i] Garland, Peter. 2007. “John Luther Adams”. Liner notes to John Luther Adams – For Lou Harrison. New World Records.

[ii] Anon. n.d. “John Luther Adams”. Deep Listening Institute. Retrieved Dec 21, 2010.

[iii] Ross, Alex. 2013. “Water Music”. The New Yorker (8 July): (accessed 8 September 2014).

[iv] Ross, Alex. “Water Music”. Retrieved 3 May 2014.