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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

ex. 9-16b Guillaume de Machaut, La messe de Nostre Dame, Gloria, final Amen


ex. 9-17 Guillaume de Machaut, La messe de Nostre Dame: Ite, missa est

The Kyrie is built around the same cantus firmus as the Kyrie from the Faenza Codex sampled in Ex. 9-9: the famous Cunctipotens genitor melody, which we have encountered by now in several guises. In the Kyriale, the official book of Ordinary chants, it is assigned to Mass IV, a lavish tenth-century formulary reserved for feasts of “double” rank. The fact that a setting of it is found in Faenza raises the possibility of alternatim performance with Machaut’s Kyrie—a kind of responsorial performance in which sections sung in polyphony alternate with sections played on the organ or sung in plainchant. The Faenza setting is in fact the earliest presumed documentation of the practice, which became very widespread in the fifteenth century, especially in Italy and Germany.

This is not to imply that Machaut had any intention or premonition of such a thing. On the contrary, his unambiguous use of repetition signs shows clearly that his intention was to repeat his polyphonic settings rather than interpolate organ verses according to a practice he may or may not have known about. And yet the choice of the same cantus firmus for the Kyrie in Faenza, which contains other compositions by Machaut and his contemporaries, nevertheless suggests the possibility that the Faenza Kyrie may have been intended for insertion—or at least that it could have been inserted—into Machaut’s very distinguished Mass. Despite its fame, in the early fifteenth century nobody regarded the work as an inviolable or canonical “classic” in our current sense of the word; such a concept did not yet exist. Machaut’s Mass—any Mass—was functional music and as such was adaptable to circumstances and to local requirements.

In the first section of Machaut’s setting (shown in Ex. 9-15) the Cunctipotens genitor melody, carried of course by the tenor, is cut up into bite-sized taleae of archaic cast: they actually correspond to “third mode” (LBBL) ordines as described a century earlier by Garlandia, with whose treatise a well-educated musician like Machaut had to be familiar. The contratenor, too, is composed of short recurring rhythmic “cells,” although they are not strictly enough organized to be considered isorhythmic. Isorhythmic or no, there is a great deal of rhythmic repetition: the rhythmically active triplum at mm. 7–12, for example, a passage encompassing two measures of syncopation and one of hocket, is exactly mimicked by the rhythms in mm. 20–24; moreover, two measures in the same repeated passage—compare mm. 10–11 and mm. 22–23—are pan-isorhythmic (rhythmically identical in all parts).

The Christe section introduces a new level of rhythmic energy—syncopated, hockety minims—into the two uppermost parts. In the triplum it is the extremes of rhythmic activity—full-measure longs and rapid hockets—that recur most strictly. The most striking rhythmic effect—and a characteristic one—is that of wild activity regularly hitting the brick wall of utter stasis. Machaut was far from the only composer of his time to revel in this sort of radical rhythmic contrast. It displays the potentialities of the Ars Nova at maximum strength.

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. 19 Feb. 2017. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009012.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 19 Feb. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009012.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 19 Feb. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009012.xml