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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

Mixing the attributes of the motet and chanson genres was a highly unusual effect. The genres were more typically thought of as distinct to the point of contrast—a contrast conditioned above all by their methods of composition. To appreciate the difference, and the new way of composing Machaut seems to have pioneered in his chansons, we will do best to begin with a monophonic composition—say, a typical virelai.

One of Machaut’s best known virelais, because it is so frequently performed by modern minstrels in “early music” ensembles, is the catchy Douce dame jolie (Ex. 9-4). It is a very early instance of a literate composition that is in duple time on all levels of mensuration. The purposely varied detail-work discloses the song’s literate origins: the first three lines of the poem are set to what are in essence three repetitions of a single musical phrase, but each of them is subtly distinguished from the others. In the original notation the music begins with rests, even though there are no accompanying parts, because without bars the only way in which an initial upbeat could be indicated was by showing the silent part of the hypothetical first measure. Like many duple-metered pieces of the time, it especially emphasizes syncopes.

The Top-Down Style

ex. 9-4 Guillaume de Machaut, Douce dame jolie (monophonic virelai)

The Top-Down StyleThe Top-Down Style

ex. 9-5 Guillaume de Machaut, En mon cuer (virelai a 2)

Eight—only eight—of Machaut’s thirty-nine virelais are polyphonic. Of these, six are in two voices only, a texted “cantus” (“song” or “singer”) part and an untexted tenor. The nomenclature already suggests that a tenor has been added to a “song,” or in other words, that the song existed as a monophonic composition before it was made polyphonic by a lower accompanying voice. This is just the opposite from the procedure we have observed in all the polyphonic genres of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—organum, clausula, even the homorhythmic conductus, which had no preexisting tenor but created its own from scratch. Above all, adding a tenor to a preexisting cantus was the very antithesis of motet composition. Starting “at the top” was a whole new concept of composing—within the literate tradition, anyway (for we have always recognized the possibility, indeed the strong probability, that “accompanied song” was a minstrel specialty at least from the time of the troubadours.) Two kinds of additional evidence clinch the notion of “top-down” composition. One is the state of the musical sources. The virelai En mon cuer (“In my heart,” Ex. 9-5), for example, is found as a two-voice composition in all the composer-supervised “collected editions” of Machaut’s works—all, that is, except the one generally considered to be the earliest such manuscript, where its “cantus” is entered, like the other virelais in that manuscript, as a monophonic dance song. That was how it must have been originally composed. It is self-sufficient as a single voice. That is, it has a stable and satisfying cadence structure, and unlike its eventual accompanying tenor, it has enough notes to accommodate all the syllables of the text.

The remaining piece of evidence that Machaut wrote his songs from the top down, beginning with the self-sufficient cantus, comes from another of his famous narrative poems, Le Voir Dit (“The true tale”), composed in the early 1360s. This, too, is ostensibly an autobiographical poem, far less conventional in its scenario than Le Remède de Fortune and possibly, therefore, more reliable as autobiography. Its ten thousand lines embody, along with the narrative itself, some forty-six ultraliterary love letters exchanged between the sexagenarian poet and a precocious lass of nineteen, Péronne (or Péronnel) d’Armentières, whom he is pursuing as courtly lover. Along with the letters there are some lyric poems addressed by Machaut to his callow beloved, of which a few are set to music. In one of the letters accompanying a song Machaut tells Peronelle that he will send another as soon as he has put a tenor and a contratenor to it. Peronelle may not have been particularly interested in the implications of that statement, but to us they are profoundly revealing.

The upshot of all this scattered evidence is that any of Machaut’s two-part virelais could have started out, and probably did start out, as monophonic songs, to which tenors were added later. A corollary implication is that monophonic performance was probably a standard option for all of Machaut’s virelais. Another is that polyphonic performance was likewise a standard option: any monophonic virelai, that is, was eligible for accompaniment by a tenor, whether set down in writing or extemporized. And because Machaut’s monophonic melodies had to be eligible for accompaniment in this way, they had to differ fundamentally in style from all previous monophonic melodies we have encountered.

Here is why: Whether set down or extemporized, any tenor had to make correct counterpoint with its “cantus.” In addition to observing the rules of consonance, this meant making the proper kind of cadence—i.e., a discant cadence. A discant cadence, as we recall, either moved by contrary motion inward to a unison (i.e., made an occursus) or moved out by contrary motion to the octave. The latter type was by far the more common, owing to the fact that most discants were constructed over a Gregorian cantus firmus in the lower voice; and Gregorian melodies, as a result of their characteristic arch shape, almost always made their last approach to the final as a stepwise descent. For that reason, the usual vox organalis or duplum, just as characteristically, made its last approach to the final from below, via the subsemitonium or leading tone.

As we may remember from chapter 4, high “Latinate” troubadour and trouvère melodies were often all but indistinguishable, stylistically, from the late Frankish chants that were being composed at the same time. Accordingly, they too made their final approach to the final from above. That is the way unaccompanied melodies traditionally worked.

But now compare an unaccompanied (or a potentially unaccompanied) melody by Machaut. Both Douce dame jolie and En mon cuer make their cadential approaches not from above but via the subsemitonium. They are composed, in other words, on the model of a duplum, not a tenor, and they established a basic melodic type for courtly songs that would last for several centuries. They are, in short, monophonic melodies that were conceived in the context of polyphony, by a composer whose musical imagination had been definitively shaped by polyphony. Even the tenor melody in Lasse/Se j’aime POURQUOY (Ex. 9-3), that whimsical virelai-motet hybrid, makes its final cadences from below (see Ex. 9-2). In other words, it does not really behave like a tenor. Its eccentricity forces a peculiar cadence structure on the polyphonic texture that adds another level of irony to the piece.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Machaut and His Progeny." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Machaut and His Progeny. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Dec. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Machaut and His Progeny." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Dec. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009003.xml