Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame : an overview


Guillaume de Machaut is the most important poet and composer of the 14th century, with a lasting history of influence. His unique oeuvre, contained, thanks to the composer’s own efforts, in manuscripts that include only his works, stands in many respects for itself: in terms of its volume, its poetic and compositional formulation and quality, but also in the number of genres in whose development Machaut played a crucial role. In the compilation and ordering of his works as well as in the testimony of the texts themselves there is a wealth of information about Machaut’s self-awareness and about the production of his works and manuscripts. This ranges from general remarks about poetics and other aesthetic concepts to details about the composition of particular pieces, questions about their fixing and transmission in writing and their realization in sound. Biographical details also allow the works to be placed in a social context. [See Wulf Arlt. “Machaut, Guillaume de.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 23 Jan. 2017. <>.]

The foundational music of Christian worship in medieval Europe was Gregorian chant, which was monophonic, a single melodic line without accompaniment.  Polyphonic settings of sections of the Ordinary of the Mass are found in an eleventh-century manuscript known as the Winchester Troper, but these focus on tropes added to the Kyrie and Gloria, rather than on the Ordinary texts themselves.  It is assumed that the actual movements of the Mass were memorized  and what were contained in extant manuscripts are optional tropes to be interpolated into the Mass upon performance. [See “The Messe de Nostre Dame, Introduction: Music for the Mass in fourteenth-century France”, Website: Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), 23 Jan 2017 <;.]

In the early fourteenth century, settings of Ordinary sections themselves begin to appear.  These pieces borrow from other styles, especially the motet, the nascent polyphonic secular song, and the conductus, a genre otherwise fading from the scene.  The word conductus derives from Latin conducere (to escort), and the conductus was most likely sung while the lectionary was carried from its place of safekeeping to the place from which it was to be read.  The style of the conductus was usually rhythmic, as befitting music accompanying a procession, and almost always note-against-note. Stylistically it was utterly different from the other principal liturgical polyphonic form of the time, organum, in which the voices usually moved at different speeds; in conductus, the voices sang together, in a style also known as discant.

For the most part, these early Mass movements appear to have been written independently, and they survive in the manuscripts organized by text:  i.e., a section of a group of the Kyrie, another section grouping together the Gloria section by various composers, etc.  Singers would draw on these small collections to compile the music needed for a specific service.  Sometimes, a scribe would copy together a pair of musically-related movements (usually Gloria-Credo or Sanctus-Agnus), or even a complete cycle.  An example of this kind of scribally-created cycle is the Tournai Mass, so called from its appearance in a manuscript now in Tournai.  The six sections included here are not related musically, so they were almost certainly brought together by the scribe or someone else associated with the compilation of the manuscript.  Three other similarly compiled masses from the 13th and early 14th century survive: the Toulouse Mass, Barcelona Mass, and Sorbonne Mass (also known as the Besançon Mass). All of these masses are anonymous, and musicological scholarship indicates that all of them are compilations of the works of several composers.  The practice of such endowments was common, and, as we shall see, a similar motivation underpins Machaut’s Mass. [See “The Messe de Nostre Dame, Introduction: Music for the Mass in fourteenth-century France”, Website: Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), 23 Jan 2017 <;.]

Machaut’s four-part Mass represents the earliest instance of a Mass Ordinary setting that is stylistically coherent and was also conceived as a unit by a single composer. Machaut’s Mass, probably written in the early 1360s, was connected with the Reims celebration and on the death of his brother it was transformed into a memorial mass. It continued to be performed after Machaut’s death, perhaps continuing into the 15th century. (See Robertson, Anne Walters. 2002. Guillaume de Machaut and Reims: context and meaning in his musical works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

In the Mass, isorhythm and diverse other compositional techniques of Machaut’s late period are brought together in one work that is outstanding in terms of artistic merit and belongs among the most impressive works of the Middle Ages.

The Messe de Nostre Dame by Machaut consists of 5 movements, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, followed by the dismissal Ite, missa est. The tenor of the Kyrie is based on Vatican Kyrie IV, the Sanctus and Agnus correspond to Vatican Mass XVII and the Ite is on Sanctus VIII. The Gloria and Credo have no apparent chant basis, although they are stylistically related to one another. (See Gombosi, O. “Machaut’s ‘Messe Notre-Dame’.” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2 (April, 1950), pp. 204–224)

Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame is for four voices rather than the more common three. Machaut added a contratenor voice that moved in the same low range as the tenor, sometimes replacing it as the lowest voice.

In the liturgy of the Mass, the items of the Ordinary are not performed consecutively, but are separated from one another by prayers and chants. Machaut’s unification of these items into an artistic whole is the earliest instance of an Ordinary of the Mass setting that is stylistically coherent and was also conceived as a unit. (See Keitel, E.A. “The So-Called Cyclic Mass of Guillaume de Machaut: New Evidence for an Old Debate.” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 307–323).

This gesture by Machaut imposed on the Ordinary a previously unconsidered abstract artistic idea, and potentially influenced composers throughout the ages to continue setting the Ordinary to stylistically coherent music.

There have been dozens for recordings of the complete Mass and even more incomplete recordings, but most are out of print today.  I will describe some that I think are among the best, as well as the most recent recordings.

machaut_mass_hilliardHyperion CDA 66 358
Guillaume de Machaut – Messe de Notre Dame, Le lai de la fonteinne
The Hilliard Ensemble – Paul Hillier, dir.
Rec.: 1987
Includes extensive notes on the history of the Mass and Machaut’s contribution, as well as full texts in Latin and English.  As is usual, Paul Hilliard presents the music in a one-voice-to-a-part setting, and flawless singing.   Recorded in 1987, the group was at the peak of their power as a small vocal ensemble, and this is still one of the better versions available.  However, as is the case with most English groups,  the stylistic approach may not satisfy everyone, especially those who favor a more grittier sound that arguably might more accurately reflect how the polyphony was put across during Machaut’s period.

machaut_mass_binchoisHarmonic Records H/CD 8931
Messe de Notre-Dame de Guillaume de Machaut – Propre grégorien de la messe de l’assomption de la Bienheureuse Vierge Marie
Ensemble Gilles Binchois – Dominique Vellard, dir.
Rec.: 1990
The Machaut Mass is one of the first surviving and identifiable works by a single composer; this alone would make it of immense value and interest. It’s also an amazingly evocative, delicate and beautiful work, which benefits from an idiomatic approach and one equally light of touch. It was written in an age – the calamitous fourteenth century – when belief and devotion may have been the only certainties; so to have emphasised them with strenuous vocal textures and driving melodic lines would have been, perhaps, implicitly to undermine the strength of belief and devotion, which had to be taken for granted.

So it is that Dominique Vellard and the singers of the Ensemble Gilles Binchois make serenity, sweetness almost – and lyricism – amongst the abiding characteristics of which you are aware as you listen to their interpretation. ‘Interpretation’ because Vellard conceives of the Mass as the Ordinary of a polyphonic Mass incorporated into the development of a Gregorian Mass, a small group of singers privately singing in plainchant. Given the fact that the Messe de Notre Dame is also one of the longest extant works from the Middle Ages, there is real potential for a lack of cohesion in such an approach. Not at all here. This is a remarkably unified, and hence profoundly satisfying, account. It holds its own with all other available recordings. (Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International)

machaut_mass_naxosNaxos Early Music-Alte Musik 8.553833
Guillaume de Machaut: La Messe de Nostre Dame Songs from Le Voir Dit
Oxford Camerata – Jeremy Summerly, dir.
Rec.: 1996
Summerly’s reading has the advantage of having been recorded in the very building where the Mass may first have been heard more than 600 years ago – Rheims Cathedral. How much of an advantage that is depends largely (I suspect) on the listener’s turn of mind; in any case, the claim in the booklet-notes that this is the closest we will get to actually hearing what Machaut heard leaves me rather sceptical. Never mind; this is a clean, well-balanced rendition, using solo voices, like the Taverner Consort but (unlike that group) with countertenors, rather than high tenors, on the top lines. The tone-quality here is more restrained than Parrott’s. Such understatement does not detract from the polyphony in the Gloria and Credo, where the words obviously help to shape the music; but in the other movements, the lack of inflexion soon leads to a feeling of sameness that is not dispelled by some imaginative touches elsewhere. There is neither quite the sharpness of Parrott’s account (still my preferred choice), nor the polish of the Hilliard’s reading, nor finally the adventurousness of that of Peres.

machaut_mass_organumHarmonia mundi HMC 90 1590
Guillaume de Machaut: La Messe de Nostre Dame
Ensemble Organum – Marcel Pérès, dir.
Rec.: 1996
This recording of Ensemble Organum in Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Notre-Dame — a pivotal piece, as it is the earliest complete polyphonic mass setting by a named Western composer of prominence — was destined to enter the field as one of the most controversial early music recordings ever. Marcel Pérès and his group decided to vocally ornament the music, a feature for which there is no indication in the surviving sources in the Mass itself, nor historic support in what few treatises we have from Machaut’s century, the fourteenth. If the specific type of ornaments the Ensemble Organum introduces into this music can be identified, perhaps a parallel can be drawn to Arabic singing or to some of the keyboard ornaments found in the Codex Faenza, a source that at it’s earliest possible point origin can be dated to about the time that Machaut died. Although it is a four-voice mass, Pérès opts for a very large component of singers, resulting in a very full, rich sound, although the singing is deliberately made a little rough, perceptibly “medieval” in tone, and a little unbeautiful in comparison to the vocally pristine approach commonly employed in early Renaissance music. Such practice is historically nearby to this mass, but understood from what historic sources there are to be different in the essentials.

The sum quotient is, although we have this mass and can read its notation, we cannot really know what Machaut intended it to sound like; there is not enough support material outside of its sources to tell us that. Ensemble Organum’s version has a very grave interpretation that emphasizes the low voices and takes a very flexible approach to rhythm; even though we cannot call it “authoritative,” it certainly feels that way. The recording is gloriously well made within a cathedral ambience, and all of the appropriate chant passages are taken, stretching the five movements of Machaut’s mass out to nearly an hour. Listeners truly interested in Machaut and this seminal masterwork really should know this recording, whether or not they like it; most viable alternatives are more located in the expected realm of interpretation, but are not so passionately devoted to exploring the possibilities of Machaut’s Messe de Notre-Dame as this. (

machaut_mass_diabolusAlpha 132
Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame
Diabolus in Musica – Antoine Guerber
Rel.: 2008Perhaps because this is the first complete polyphonic mass known to have been the work of one composer and preserved in its entirety. Perhaps because two or three generations ago it sounded so splendid, new – exotic, almost. Certainly striking. There are currently fewer than a dozen recordings in the catalog; these do not include the one by Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica, an iconic recording central to the early music revival. Like any modern symphony or chamber work, Machaut’s hour-long work admits of almost as many interpretations as there are interpreters.

On this CD we get a robust and highly convincing interpretation from the ever enterprising eight-person (all male) French group, Diabolus in Musica, under their director Antoine Guerber. ‘Diabolus in Musica’, by the way, implies the E-B (or the modern F-B) tritone, or augmented fourth, used throughout Western music to establish dissonance – the devil, to be kept out of music at all costs. The group’s is a direct, intimate and penetrating approach. Although the textures which the ensemble consistently achieves are sonorous, they are neither fanciful, nor over-rich. The tempi are refreshingly slow, unhurried and allow exposition of the importance, weight and impact of every syllable; for the words are of the utmost importance.

By refusing to overplay their hands, by judicious restraint, and by meticulous articulation of every note in undemonstrative yet highly expressive phrasing Diabolus in Musica seems to have captured not only the rigor and joy which Machaut employed in this task. But these wise musicians are also at one with the novelty and innovative impact which the mass must have made when first sung. The recording – which is crisp and atmospheric – was made in a low-ceilinged location at the Abbey of Fontevraud. This acoustic enhances the music-making. Ultimately, it’s the perspicacity and skill of Guerber and his singers that makes this recording so successful and satisfying. Listen to the lines and varying intensities of the Gloria [tr.3], for example. As much gentle and yet lavish breath as unselfconscious poise. Yet without drawing any teeth: the singers in Diabolus in Musica are real individuals performing as such. No attempt to submerge or efface their vocal personalities. Nor yet to impose wayward, unnecessary color. The music comes first and last – and is somehow interpreted for what it is: a liturgy in which to be involved. Yet as much as an object of beauty and wonder as a rather austere – No, restrained – service. (

machaut_mass_musica novaAeon AECD 1093
In Memoriam – Guillaume de Machaut: Messe Notre Dame
Ensemble Musica Nova – Lucien Kandel, dir.
Rec.: 2010
Foldout digipak with attached booklet. The booklet is actually rather good, with significant notes in French and English including a discussion of the evidence for the pronunciation of Latin in 14th & 15th century France, and full sung texts with French and English translations.

I prefer all male ensembles, singing one voice to a part, and this is not that kind of group.  Tempos are slow in an attempt to convey spitiuality, I suppose.  But the inclusion of instruments is not something that would have been done in Machaut’s time, and I am against the practice.



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