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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny

Machaut’s Songs and Mass; Music at the Papal Court of Avignon; Ars Subtilior

CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Guillaume de Machaut may not have been the most prestigious French poet and musician of his time. In terms of contemporary renown, he may have been outshone by Philippe de Vitry. He is certainly the most important to us, however, and the most representative, owing to the extraordinary fullness of his legacy, a fullness that stands in stark contrast to the meagerness of Vitry’s. Certain aspects of Machaut’s legacy, moreover, lived on for a century and more in the work of later poets and musicians who definitely saw themselves as his creative heirs.

The first half of Machaut’s long life was spent in service, chiefly as secretary to John of Luxembourg (1296–1346), a son of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, who succeeded his father-in-law Wenceslaus as king of Bohemia in 1310. Machaut, who like his patron was born around the turn of the century, came from the environs of the ancient cathedral town of Reims in the north of France, not far from Luxembourg. There is actually a town called Machault about twenty-five miles from Reims, but there is no evidence to support the tempting assumption that it was the poet’s birthplace.

Chapter 9 Machaut and His Progeny

fig. 9-1 Illumination from the largest of the “Machaut manuscripts” showing the poet composing Les nouveaus dis amoureus (“New Poems in Honor of Love”).

He was in the peripatetic John’s service by 1323 and traveled widely with him on campaigns across northern and eastern Europe, including Silesia, Poland, Prussia, and Lithuania, as well as the Alpine areas of Lombardy and Tyrol, which John briefly ruled. After his patron’s spectacularly violent death, tied blind to his horse on the battlefield of Crécy, Machaut returned to Reims and lived out his last three decades as a tonsured cathedral canon, with few official duties beyond singing some minimum number of Masses and Offices each year. He was in effect a wealthy man of leisure, free to pursue his artistic callings. He died in 1377, remarkably aged for a man who lived during the century of the great plagues.

As his reputation as a poet grew, Machaut was commissioned by several kings and dukes to write dits, lengthy allegorical poems, in their honor. For these patrons and others, Machaut also supervised the copying of his complete poetical and musical works into rich manuscripts, several of which survive, making him, along with the much less prolific Adam de la Halle, one of the earliest musical literati whose works come down to us in what amounts to an authorized collected edition.

Like the trouvères, his most kindred antecedents, Machaut belongs as much or more to literary as to musical history. He is universally regarded by today’s literary historians as the greatest French poet of his age; his poetry is studied alongside that of Chaucer (whom he knew and influenced) and Dante, even if, unlike theirs, Machaut’s literary output no longer enjoys a wide general readership. He is best known to today’s connoisseurs for his music, not his poetry; since the revival of performing interest in “early music,” he has come to enjoy a place in the concert hall and in recordings somewhat comparable to Chaucer’s on the bookshelf.

His longest and most impressive works are nevertheless works of verbal art: extended narrative poems, much prized and cited in their day, in which the lyric compositions we now prize served as occasional interpolations. The earliest of these grand narratives, Le Remède de Fortune (“Fortune’s remedy”), composed around 1349, has been compared to an ars poetica, a didactic treatise or compendium on lyric poetry, since it contains exemplary specimens of all the main genres, placed within a story that defines their expressive content and social use.

The poem’s very plot is motivated by poetry. The poet anonymously composes a lai in honor of his lady, who discovers it, bids him read it to her, and asks who wrote it. Embarrassed, he flees her presence and addresses a complainte to Love and Fortune. Hope, fortune’s remedy, appears and comforts him with two ballade-type songs in praise of love: a chanson royal and a baladelle (the latter a poem in what much later was known as “binary form,” with a stanza in two repeated sections with complementary rhyme schemes). The poet expresses his gratitude in a standard ballade. He seeks his lady out, finds her dancing, and accompanies her movements with a virelai. He confesses authorship of the lay, she receives him as her lover, and, after a day spent together at her chateau, they exchange rings and he expresses his joy in a rondeau.

This narrative followed and amplified the typical blueprint of a troubadour (or trouvère) vida of old. With it, Machaut deliberately gave the moribund art of the knightly poet-lover a new birth, distinguished in part—specifically, in the baladelle, the ballade, and the rondeau—by the use of polyphonic music in the latest style. The fact that these were the sections so favored points to an important difference between Machaut’s courtly poetry and that of the trouvères. While operating on as lofty and aristocratic a plane as the knightliest trouvères, as a composer he preferred the “fixed forms”—that is, the dance songs with refrains. These, we may recall, had originally come into their own when the courtly art of the trouvères had moved from castle to city and became the property of the guilds. Machaut reinvested the urbanized, “popular” genres of fine amours with privileged (now we’d call it “chic”) refinement.

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. 2 Dec. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-009.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 2 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-009.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 2 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-009.xml