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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

That reinvestment was accomplished not by a stylistic revival but a thorough stylistic renovation. Machaut was able to reelevate and recomplicate the style of courtly love poetry, even while retaining its more popular forms, because he possessed a polyphonic craft that went far beyond the attainments of any previous courtly or urban love-singer. Where Adam de la Halle’s polyphonic rondeaux were cast in as simple and straightforward a polyphonic texture as could be—that of the syllabic versus or conductus setting—Machaut’s were subtle, ornate, and full of a very recondite lyricism that made telling decorative use, as we have seen, of musica ficta “causa pulchritudinis.”

We have already inspected one of Machaut’s motets (Felix virgo/Inviolata/AD TE SUSPIRAMUS, Ex. 8-6) and seen how fully he had mastered the craftsmanly and constructive techniques of the Ars Nova. Ars Nova techniques, which had been developed specifically to serve the purposes of the motet genre, were “bottom-up” techniques. That is, they were techniques geared toward the erecting of highly stratified polyphonic superstructures over artfully contrived and elaborated foundations. And the foundations were wrought in turn from cantus firmus melodies appropriated, as a rule, from the high-authority repertoire of canonized church chant.

Machaut wrote some real masterpieces in this very formalized and architectonic idiom, the most extended being a giant hoquetus on the melisma DAVID that comes at the end of the Gregorian Alleluia Nativitas for the feast of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity, already the basis (as Machaut surely knew) of a grandiose, “classic” setting in the Notre Dame style. (We know it, too: see Ex. 6-5.) Machaut’s hoquetus was not meant as an appendage to that venerable composition, however. The DAVID melisma is sung not by the soloist(s) but by the choir, and so would not have been performed polyphonically in church. This was still music for “feasts of the learned,” who delighted in high-spirited intellectual games.

As shown in Ex. 9-1, Machaut divides his 32-note color by a twelve-note talea lasting 30 tempora, and lets the two repetition-schemes run their course until they come out even (or in more evocatively “Boethian” terms, lets the two bodies orbit in musical space until they come into alignment). It takes three cursus of color and eight of talea, thus: 32 × 3 = 12 × 8 = 96. Then, as a sort of cauda, he sets the color going once more to a shorter talea that divides its 32 notes evenly (8 notes in 27 tempora). Laying out the ground plan just described had to precede the composition of the hocketing upper parts, just as the foundation of an architectural edifice had to be laid before the rest could be erected. Instead of a full score, Ex. 9-1 gives just the foundational materials, the color, and the taleae. They can be followed, tracking each with one hand, while listening to a recorded performance. This will give a vivid idea of Ars Nova “isorhythmic” foundational architecture at its grandest.

Redefining (and Re-Refining) a Genre

ex. 9-1 Guillaume de Machaut, hoquetus “DAVID,” color and taleae

Redefining (and Re-Refining) a Genre

ex. 9-2 Guillaume de Machaut, Pourquoy me bat mes maris, tenor

By way of transition from the more speculative Ars Nova genres to the lyric genres more peculiar to Machaut, we may cast a sidelong glance at a whimsical hybrid: a motet in three texted parts, all in French, in which the tenor is not a Gregorian chant but instead a traditional chanson balladé (“danced song”) or virelai (Ex. 9-2: Lasse/Se j’aime/POURQUOY). The song Machaut chose to do tenor duty was almost as “canonical” as a chant, however, having a textual pedigree going back to the thirteenth century. It satirizes courtly love as mere marital infidelity (“Oh God, why does my husband beat me? All I did was talk to my lover”). Ex. 9-2 shows Machaut’s tenor in compressed note values (Machaut’s are longs and breves, typical “tenor” values), with the constituent parts of the virelai—AbbaA, with “A” the refrain—labeled. The upper parts, meanwhile, behave in characteristic motet fashion. They are rhythmically stratified—the motetus moving in breves, semibreves, and occasional minims; the triplum in minims, semibreves, and occasional breves—and serve as glosses (here, ironic rhymed ones) on the tenor: “Alas, how can I forget/the handsome, the good, the sweet, the merry/[youth] to whom I’ve completely given/this heart of mine?” “If I love him truly, and he truly loves me, do I deserve to be treated so?” Ex. 9-3 shows the portion of the whole polyphonic texture corresponding to the tenor’s first refrain.

Redefining (and Re-Refining) a GenreRedefining (and Re-Refining) a Genre

ex. 9-3 Guillaume de Machaut, Lasse/Se j’aime/POURQUOY, mm. 1-42

There is good reason to suspect that even if the tenor’s text is traditional, its tune is Machaut’s, or else heavily edited by Machaut to accord with his own composing style (or, at very least, with contemporary performance practice; note, among other telltale signs, the musica ficta calling for the subsemitonium modi, the borrowed leading tone). Machaut’s own virelais are very similar. Most of them are monophonic, presumably because of the three main fixed forms the virelai was the one that continued most often to serve a traditional social function—the carole or public (social) dance—and was most often performed by minstrels. Mensurally notated monophonic dances and dance-songs proliferated in written sources throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, beginning with the famous “Manuscrit du Roi,” which contains eight estampies royals, long “stamping dances” in open-and-shut couplets, already mentioned in chapter 4 (and shown in Fig. 4-8). That being the case, Lasse/Se j’aime/POURQUOY might be looked upon through the other end of the telescope, so to speak: not so much as a motet built over a virelai, but rather as a polyphonically dressed-up virelai of an especially elaborate sort, in which the techniques of the motet serve to embellish a courtly dance.

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. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009002.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009002.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009002.xml