Guilllaume de Machaut was "the last great poet who was also a composer," in the words of the scholar Daniel Leech-Wilkinson. Well into the fifteenth century, Machaut's poetry was greatly admired and imitated by other poets including the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Machaut was and is the most celebrated composer of the fourteenth century. He composed in a wide range of styles and forms and his output was enormous. He was also the most famous and historically significant representative of the musical movement known as the ars nova.
Machaut was especially influential in the development of the motet and the secular song (particularly the 'lai', and the formes fixes: rondeau, virelai and the musical form of the ballade). Machaut wrote the Messe de Nostre Dame, the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer, and influenced composers for centuries to follow.
Machaut was born c. 1300 and educated in the region around Rheims. Though his surname most likely derives from the nearby town of Machault, 30 km to the east of Rheims in the Ardennes region, most scholars believe his birthplace was in fact Rheims. He was employed as secretary to John I, Count of Luxemburg and King of Bohemia, from 1323 to 1346; in addition he became a priest sometime during this period. Most likely he accompanied King John on his various trips, many of them military expeditions, around Europe (including Prague). He was named as the canon (priest) of Verdun-sur-Meuse in 1330, Arras in 1332 and Rheims in 1333. By 1340, Machaut was living in Rheims, having relinquished his other canonic posts at the request of Pope Benedict XII. In 1346, King John was killed fighting at the Battle of Crécy, and Machaut, who was famous and much in demand, entered the service of various other aristocrats and rulers including King John's daughter Bonne (who died of the Black Death in 1349), Charles II of Navarre, Jean de Berry, and Charles, Duke of Normandy, who would become King Charles V of France in 1364.
Machaut survived the Black Death which devastated Europe, and spent his later years living in Rheims composing and supervising the creation of his complete-works manuscripts. His poem Le Voir Dit (probably 1361-1365) is said by some to be autobiographical, recounting a late love affair with a 19-year-old girl, Péronne d'Armentières, although this is contested. When he died in 1377, other composers such as François Andrieu wrote elegies lamenting his death.
Guillaume de Machaut's lyric output comprises around 400 poems, including 235 ballades, 76 rondeaux, 39 virelais, 24 lais, 10 complaintes, and 7 chansons royales, and Machaut did much to perfect and codify these fixed forms. Much of his lyric output is inserted in his narrative poems or "dits," such as Le Remède de Fortune (The Cure of Ill Fortune) and Le Voir Dit (A True Story). Many of Machaut's poems are without music, and Machaut stated clearly that for him, writing the poem always preceded (and had greater importance than) composing the music. Other than his Latin motets of a religious nature and some poems invoking the horrors of war and captivity, the vast majority of Machaut's lyric poems partake of the conventions of courtly love and involve statements of service to a lady and the poet's pleasure and pains. In technical terms, Machaut was a master of elaborate rhyme schemes, and this concern makes him a precursor to the Grands Rhétoriqueurs of the fifteenth century.
Guillaume de Machaut's narrative output is dominated by the "dit" (literally "spoken," i.e. a poem not meant to be sung). These first-person narrative poems (all but one are written in octosyllabic rhymed couplets, like the Medieval French literature romance, or "roman" of the same period) follow many of the conventions of the Roman de la Rose, including the use of allegorical dreams (songes), allegorical characters, and the situation of the narrator-lover attempting to return toward or satisfy his lady. Machaut is also responsible for a poetic chronicle of chivalric deeds (the Prise d'Alexandrie) and for poetic works of consolation and moral philosophy. His unusual self-reflective usage of himself (as his lyrical persona) as the narrator of his dits gleans some personal philosophical insights as well.
At the end of his life, Machaut wrote a poetic treatise on his craft (his Prologue).
Principal works of Guillaume de Machaut:
Machaut was by far the most famous and influential composer of the fourteenth century. His secular song output includes monophonic lais and virelais, which continue, in updated forms, some of the tradition of the troubadours. However, his work in the polyphonic forms of the ballade and rondeau was more significant historically, and he wrote the first complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass which can be attributed to a single composer. He was the last important representative of the 'trouvère' tradition.
The vast majority of Machaut's works were secular in nature. His lyrics almost always dealt with courtly love. A few works exist to commemorate a particular event, such as M18, "Bone Pastor/Bone Pastor/Bone Pastor." Machaut mostly composed in five genres: the lai, the virelai, the motet, the ballade, and the rondeau. In these genres, Machaut retained the basic formes fixees, but often utilized creative text setting and musical cadences. For example, most rondeaux phrases end with a long 'melisma' on the penultimate syllable. However, a few of Machaut's rondeaux, such as R18 "Puis qu'en oubli," are mostly syllabic in treatment. Machaut's motets often contain sacred texts in the tenor, such as in M12 "Corde mesto cantando/Helas! pour quoy virent/Libera me." The triplum and cantus voices, in contrast, sing secular French texts, creating interesting concordances between the sacred and secular. In his other genres, though, he does not utilize sacred texts.
Machaut's cyclic setting of the Mass, his Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady), was probably composed for Reims Cathedral in the early 1360s. While not the first cyclic mass—the Tournai Mass is earlier—it was the first by a single composer and conceived as a unit. Machaut probably was familiar with the Tournai Mass since the Messe de Nostre Dame shares many stylistic features with it, including textless interludes.
Whether or not Machaut's mass is indeed cyclic is of some contention, indeed after lengthy debate musicologists are still deeply divided. However, there is a consensus that this mass is at best a forerunner to the later fifteenth–century cyclic masses by the likes of Josquin des Prez. Machaut's mass differs from these in the following ways. One: he does not hold a tonal centre throughout the entire work, as the mass uses two distinct modes, (one for the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo, another for Sanctus, Agnus and Ita missa est). Two: there is no melodic theme that clearly runs through all the movements and there is no parody mass. Three: there is considerable evidence suggesting that this mass was not composed in one creative motion; although the movements may have been placed together this does not mean that they were conceived so. (see Musical Quarterly, 'the so-called cyclic mass of Guillame De Machaut: new evidence for an old debate' - Elizabeth Keitel.)
Having said that, stylistically the mass can be said to be consistent, and certainly the chosen chants are all celebrations of the mother Mary. Also adding weight to a claim that the mass is cyclic is the possibility that the piece was written/brought together to be performed at a specific celebration. The possibility that it was for the coronation of Charles V of France, which was once widely accepted, is thought unlikely in modern scholarship. The intention by the composer for the piece to be performed as one entire mass setting most commonly gives Le Messe de Nostre Dame the title of a cyclic composition.
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