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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

“Here beginneth the Mass of Our Lady,” reads the heading following the motet section in one of Machaut’s most sumptuous personally supervised manuscripts. It, too, was a votive Mass, one that the composer himself endowed with a bequest, to serve as a memorial to “Guillaume and Jean de Machaux [sic], both brothers and canons of the church of Our Lady (l’eglise de Notre Dame) of Reims.” So reads the preface to an eighteenth-century copy of the composer’s cathedral epitaph, which went on to quote a provision of his will stating that he had left three hundred florins to ensure “that the prayer for the dead, on every Saturday, for their souls and for those of their friends, may be said by a priest about to celebrate faithfully, at the side altar, a Mass which is to be sung” (italics added). In fact, the will was honored (though not with the music originally provided) until the middle of the eighteenth century.

So Machaut’s Mass was intended to serve the same purpose as were the other Ordinary formularies of the period. (The familiar conjecture that it was composed for the Coronation of Charles V of France, which happened to take place at Reims in 1364, is still occasionally repeated but has long been discredited). And the detailed description of the Mass of Tournai given above is also, to an astonishing degree, a description of Machaut’s Mass.

Although it is the work of a single author, it is no less a composite than the other Ordinaries of its time. Like the others, it is modally disparate: the final of the first three sections is D (minorish), while that of the last three is F (majorish). Like the Tournai Mass, it has a Gloria and Credo that contrast stylistically with the other components, and contrast in precisely the same way. The Gloria is a cantilena bordering on homorhythm, but with a grand motetlike Amen replete with hockets; the Credo is in a more rigorously homorhythmic style. Both movements have the same textless bridging passages as in the Tournai Credo. Again as in the Tournai Mass, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei form an actual pair and are stylistically related to the Kyrie—but in a different mode. Yet again as in the Tournai Mass, the Kyrie is composed in four sections whose repetitions fill aninefold scheme.

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fig. 9-3 Reims Cathedral, where Machaut lived and worked during the last thirty years of his life.

Yet however similar it may be to its predecessors and counterparts, Machaut’s Mass is incomparably more ambitious. Although it lacks an actual motet (say, for the dismissal, where the singing of motets had apparently become customary), it has, throughout, a “specific gravity,” so to speak, that bears comparison with contemporary motet composition, and in this it stood alone among the Ordinary settings of the fourteenth century. Partly that gravity is the result of the heightened emphasis given motetlike architectonics: the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite missa est are all based on isorhythmic tenors derived from canonical plainchant; within these large divisions, moreover, several subsections are pan-isorhythmic, with repeating taleas in all parts.

But architectural design and duration are not the only dimensions in which Machaut’s Mass is remarkably big. The work is more sonorous than any of its counterparts as well, being cast throughout in the four-part texture identified in the previous chapter as the “luxuriant” style. It is a texture that crosscut traditional genres, adding both a high supplementary voice (endemic to the motet) and a low one (endemic to the cantilena) to round out the essential counterpoint of cantus (here called the triplum) and tenor.

Ci Commence la Messe de Nostre DameCi Commence la Messe de Nostre Dame

ex. 9-15 Guillaume de Machaut, La messe de Nostre Dame, Kyrie, mm. 1-27

Ci Commence la Messe de Nostre DameCi Commence la Messe de Nostre Dame

ex. 9-16a Guillaume de Machaut, La messe de Nostre Dame, Gloria, mm. 1-29

With four elaborate movements in motet style, one quasi cantilena, and one quasi conductus, Machaut’s Mass stands as a summa of contemporary compositional technique. Historically speaking, it is much more tellingly viewed as a culmination of a half-century of Avignon-oriented liturgical composition than as a dry run at the fifteenth century’s cyclic Masses. Yet it is nevertheless something more than a summary of existing possibilities. The unprecedented four-part chordal textures of the Gloria and Credo explore novel sonorities and establish new possibilities. An attempt to account for a work of such heterogeneous complexity in all of its historical and technical dimensions is beyond the scope of a chapter like this, but sampling the strikingly contrasting Kyrie (Ex. 9-15) and Gloria (Ex. 9-16a), the only sections of the Ordinary that are performed in direct sequence, will in their very contrast at least register the Mass’s stylistic extremes. The little dismissal response (Ex. 9-17) has been thrown in, too, as a reminder of the Mass’s modal heterogeneity, and its consequent status as an irreducible sum of functional parts rather than the kind of unified whole we may be more in the habit of seeking (and therefore finding) in a work reputed to be a masterpiece.

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. 4 Dec. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009011.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 4 Dec. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009011.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 4 Dec. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009011.xml