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 and could develop affections.  However because of the mores of the time these affections could not be acted upon, which would often lead to unrequited love.  The men 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 few could serve as good an introduction to Machaut as the Brilliant classics 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.

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