Guillaume de Machaut

Guillaume de Machaut


Guillaume de Machaut was one of the most important poets and composers from the Medieval period. His collection of religious music and love songs is one of the most extensive and well-preserved of his time, and his polyphonic writing would influence generations of composers. He is the most famous and influential composer of the 14th century and, along with Hildegard von Bingen, the most significant of the entire Medieval era.

Machaut was born in Rheims, France around the year 1300 but there is no historical record of him until the early 1320s, when he came into the service of John of Luxemburg, the King of Bohemia. Based on this, it is assumed that he had, to some extent, a privileged background and was at least partly trained as a musician. As the king’ssecretaire he was charged with accompanying him on diplomatic and war-based missions toFrance, Eastern and Central Europe, during which time it is speculated he met composer and music theorist Philippe de Vitry in Paris. As he was highly regarded by the king, Machaut found himself in a luxurious lifestyle full of opportunities for advancement. In 1337 he was appointed as thecanon of the Rheims Cathedral, an interesting choice seeing as he was not a clergyman and much of his music is actually secular in nature.

In 1346 Machaut’s benefactor, John of Luxemburg, was killed at the Battle of Crécy but by this point Machaut had risen to such fame in Europe that he had no trouble finding new patrons, a list which eventually included two kings of France as well as Pierre de Lusignan, the King of Cyprus. In Machaut’s unique position as both a frequent traveller and a literary man, he was often a witness and unsuspecting chronicler of history. His songs mainly dealt with the age-old subject of courtly love, which in that sense deems them as very traditional, in addition to his other passions including falconry, horseback riding and nature. However much of his poetry and other written works touched directly on current events and have proven invaluable to the modern historian. Events that he has recorded include the Black Death of 1348 and 1349, and the Siege of Rheims in 1359 during the early stages of the Hundred Year’s War.

Another large part of Machaut’s work was in the form of motets, which are polyphonic songs, usually with three or four voices, in which each voice sings its own line of text. Machaut wrote 23 of these, mostly in French although four where in Latin. He also wrote 19lais, a rhyming but rhythmically uneven form of musical poetry that was also popular among the trouvères of northern France. Although these were traditionally written for solo voice, Machaut was the first known composer to set them polyphonically. Much of Machaut’s music employs isorhythm, another Ars nova technique which involved the repetition of a rhythmic pattern through different melodies and in different voices. Originally used only in ground bass and cantus firmi, by Machaut’s time it had spread to the other voices.

Machaut makes full use of this system in his Messe de Notre Dame, his best known work. The masterpiece is a milestone in sacred music, as it is only the third surviving mass cycle, and the first to have one single composer. As such it is much more cohesive than any large-scale work previously seen. The work was dedicated to the cathedral of Rheims, where Machaut spent his youth, and its influence cannot be overstated. Hundreds of years later, composers such Johann Sebastian Bach and Joseph Haydn would still be writing masses in a style very much influenced by the precedent that Machaut set.

Header image courtesy of La Piu Grande Biblioteca Other image courtesy of Kairos Music

Machaut’s music represents a fascinating bridge from the monophonic to the polyphonic, and he wrote extensively in both styles. Although he was firmly rooted in the preceding medieval tradition, he was also one of the pioneers of theArs nova movement, which is essentially the avant-garde of the 14th century. Although in present dayArs nova is used mainly to refer to polyphonic works, at the time it also referred to the fusion of the sacred and secular, for example placing a sacred text in the context of a folk dance, or having lyrics to a love poem in a mass. This approach was understandably controversial at the time, and it was even condemned by Pope John XXII. However theArs nova survived and remains one of the most enduring elements of Machaut’s legacy.

Although Machaut wasn’t the first composer of polyphonic music, he is the first we know by name, the rest having faded into obscurity. His lifetime saw the end of thetrouvères (troubadour) tradition, to which his 25 virelais (unaccompanied vocal songs) gave an impressive send-off. It also saw the decline of much of monophonic music in general, with this giving way to more rhythmic and formal complexity. Many of these new song forms that would emerge were in fact largely popularized and perfected by Machaut, including hisballade , of which we wrote 21, androndeau, which number over 40. There is evidence that many of these works were distributed as far away as Italy and Spain, making Machaut probably the most widely-heard Western composer of his day.