Guillaume de Machaut(c. 1300 - 1377)
La Messe de NostreDame
Ballades, Rondeauxand Lai from Le Voir Dit
Guillaume de Machautwas the last great poet who was also a composer. As late as the fifteenth century, high style poetryand music were intimately linked in sentiment and use, which makes itsurprising that Machaut was the last person to practise both at the highestlevel. Yet in each field he was immensely influential. His poetry was admiredand imitated by French poets and by Chaucer, his music by composers throughout Europe well into the fifteenth century.
This disc presents aselection of related works composed by Machaut in the 13605. We can think ofthis as Machaut's 'late period' not just because he was, by medieval standards,well into his old age, but also because the music and the poetry have thatserenity and other-worldly perfection that we find in late Beethoven orStravinsky. Although on the face of it the Mass and these songs are verydifferent -the Mass, his most famous work, is rooted in the liturgy of thechurch and dedicated to the Virgin; the late songs, still very little known,are messages of courtly love -in their musical substance they have much incommon. It seems likely that they were written during the same few years (c.l360-65) and that Machaut worked out in their very different forms musical ideasthat filled his imagination at that time.
Ia Messe de NostreDame isone of the earliest, perhaps the earliest setting of the ordinary of the Massas a whole. Machaut probably composed it for performance at the Saturday LadyMass celebrated in Reims cathedral at a small altar near the choir screen. His intentionseems to have been that it would function as a Mass in honour of the Virginduring the remainder of his life, but that after his death it would become amemorial Mass for himself and his brother Jean, like Guillaume a canon of thecathedral. In due course the brothers were buried together near the altar, andthe Mass presumably continued to be sung over them for many years, perhaps evenas late as the early fifteenth century.
For this performancewe went back to Reims cathedral in order, as far as possible, to record the Mass in itsoriginal acoustics. The altar to the Virgin was set against the screen, on theright of the entrance to the choir, so that the singers would have had behindthem a wall of wood or perhaps stone, reflecting their sound back into thenave. Both screen and altar were removed after the Revolution, so for thisperformance the singers were placed in front of the organ immediately east ofthe choir step, which gave them a similar sounding-board while retaining the) argeracoustics of that part of the building. The performance was recorded using Sensauraand matches with striking fidelity the sound of the performance in thebuilding. The recording was made over two nights in sub-zero temperatures, bothfactors that may have affected the acoustics, but what we hear in thisrecording is as close as we can get, at present, to the sound of Machaut's Massin its original setting.
There are other waysin which this performance differs from previous versions. The Kyrie issung to Machaut's polyphony in all nine sections, following the unambiguousindications of the manuscripts. The Credo plainchant intonation is sungat an alternative pitch found in some northern French manuscripts of the periodbut not common today, since it leads more naturally into Machaut's polyphony.
The Ite missa est is sung polyphonically, despite liturgicalcustom, because that is indicated in some of the Machaut manuscripts andbecause it seems to work. And the singers experimented freely with plicas-notational signs indicating some kind of ornament -whose meaning is uncertainbut which appear frequently, and for the last time, in Machaut's Mass.
Le Livre dou Voir Ditisone of most extraordinary poems of the Middle Ages. Its 9,094 lines of verse,arranged in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, tell the story of the love betweenthe elderly Machaut and an adolescent admirer, Peronne. They exchange lettersand lyric poems, some set to music by Machaut, and all these are included,inserted into the narrative. Because the composition of poetry and music formspart of the story, Machaut discusses it in the letters and narrative, and wethus have unique testimony to a medieval composer's understanding of his ownwork.
Ploures dames is the first poemwith music that Machaut sends to Peronne, enclosing it in a letter from summer1362. 'I'm sending you a ballade about the sad state I've been in, and I askthat you learn the song, for it's not difficult and the music pleases me verymuch.' The text takes the form of a will written on the poet's death-bed, inwhich he leaves his heart to the women whom his poetry has always praised.
Nes qu'on porroit, the next ballade withmusic that Machaut sends (in April 1363), has a strikingly similar setting withmany of the same melodic ideas. Yet its text is very different, a reminder thatmedieval music was rarely concerned to mimic words. Machaut tells the reader ofLe Voir Dit that he 'composed this ballade from joyous and agreeablefeelings' and tells Peronne in the accompanying letter that he has made it 'inthe guise of a German dance [res d'alemangne - the precise meaning is unclear],and by God it's a long time since I've made anything so good; in my opinion.
And the tenors are as sweet as unsalted gruel. So I beg you to deign to hear itand get to know it just as it was made, without adding or omitting anything.
And it should be sung in good long measure. And if anyone could arrange it fororgan, bagpipes or other instruments that would be its very nature.'
Sans cuer dolens is included in l?úVoir Dit as Machaut leaves Peronne, on or about Friday 12th May 1363, aftertheir first stay together. He claims to have composed it on the road home, butin fact it is an earlier song, already included in a manuscript of his workcompiled c. 1350, and Machaut probably inserted it here because of itsappropriate text. This is not the only time that Machaut sends Peronne oldpoems as if they were new, and on a subsequent occasion, as we shall see, hegets caught out.
LDnguement me suitenus, theLAy de Bonne Esperence (Lay of Good Hope), belongs to an allegoricalepisode in the story, in which Machaut is taken hostage by the personificationof Hope, and is released by her only on condition that he writes a lay in herhonour. The lay was by far the largest of the lyric forms used by Machaut, anddevelops through twelve stanzas, each with two- or four-fold statements of itspoetic scheme and music. It is the only monophonic song in l?ú Voir Dit.
Puis qu'en oubli is not named in thenarrative or letters, but in its uniquely low and accompanimentallower voicescorresponds exactly to this description in a letter to Peronne of 29thSeptember 1363: 'I'm sending you a rondel with music of which I made the tuneand the text some time ago, but I've newly made the tenor and contraten