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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

ex. 9-10 Guillaume de Machaut, De toutes flours as arranged in the Faenza Codex

Until the fourteenth century polyphonic settings of the Mass Ordinary, or any part of it, were uncommon. In eleventh- and twelfth-century Aquitaine, as we know, one could find occasional polyphonic settings of the Kyrie. But these were fully “prosulated” Kyries, with syllabic verses that were “proper” to specific occasions or the places where they were sung, not “ordinary” (in the sense of all-purpose). At Notre Dame de Paris, as we know, only the responsorial chants of the Mass Proper and the Office were set, and of these only the soloist’s portion. The Ordinary was sung by the musically unlettered choir, and for that reason alone might well have been thought off-limits to polyphonic treatment. Therefore, before the fourteenth century one simply does not find settings of melismatic (“untroped”) Kyries, to say nothing of the remaining motley assortment of Ordinary chants—the Gloria (an acclamation), the Credo (a contract), the Sanctus (an invocation of the heavenly choir), the Agnus Dei (a litany), or the “Deo Gratias” response to the Ite (dismissal formula).


fig. 9-2 An echo of the “Babylonian captivity,” this altarpiece, executed ca. 1520 by the Venetian painter Antonio Ronzen for the church of Sainte Madeleine in Saint Maximin, France, shows Christ in chains before Herod against a background fancifully depicting the old papal palace at Avignon, the seat of the antipopes.

The first center where Mass Ordinary settings began to proliferate was the papal court at Avignon. One of the larger cities in the southeastern corner of France, Avignon had become the papal see in 1309, when Pope Clement V, a Frenchman (born Bernard de Got), abandoned Rome at the behest of the French king, Philip the Fair. The next six popes after Clement were also French and also subservient to their kings. This virtual “capture” of the papacy by the French crown was dubbed the Babylonian Captivity by disapproving Italians like the poet Petrarch, who coined the phrase (but who nevertheless found profitable employment at Avignon in his youth). In 1378 Pope Gregory XI was prevailed upon to move the papacy back to Rome, touching off the Great Schism. It was more a national than a religious dispute. The French popes who, under royal protection, were elected to continue the line of Clement at Avignon, were later decanonized—ruled “antipopes”—at the Council of Constance that ended the Schism in 1417 and brought the papacy back within the Italian orbit where it remained almost without interruption until the election of Pope John Paul II, a Pole, in 1978.

Two surviving manuscripts, both of them full of Ordinary settings, comprise what music remains from the papal liturgical repertory at Avignon. These manuscripts are called the Apt and Ivrea codices after the towns where they may have originated, but where they are in any case kept today. Apt is close by Avignon to the east; Ivrea, a bit farther east, is now across the Italian border near Turin. Just why it should have been at Avignon that settings of the Ordinary began to flourish has never been fully explained. But it may have had something to do with the general Frenchification of the papacy during the Babylonian Captivity. The Apt and Ivrea settings employ textures associated with other genres popular in France and may have been deliberately modeled on them.

The most elaborate are in motet (or, when particularly melismatic, in hocket) style, built up from a cantus firmus that is often cast in isorhythmic taleae. The other characteristic “Ordinary” textures were far simpler and increasingly prevalent as the Avignon repertory developed. One was the homorhythmic (or “simultaneous”) style previously associated with the conductus. It was often used for the wordier texts, such as the Gloria and Credo, where syllabic texting helped expedite their recitation. But most characteristic of all was the specifically French and originally secular three-voice “cantilena” (a.k.a. “ballade”) style, composed in the top-down fashion we have associated with Machaut. Thus, even as the Latin-texted motet was becoming more brilliant and impressive than ever over the course of the fourteenth century (and more and more firmly associated with occasions of civic and ecclesiastical pomp), within the confines of the actual service liturgy there seems to have been a countervailing tendency toward modesty and simplification. This, too, may have been among the factors conducive to Ordinary settings, which were as liturgically bare as one could get.

It was one of the early Avignon popes who issued the most famous of all antimusical screeds. Pope John XXII, Clement’s successor, was born Jacques Duèse in 1244, in the Provençal town of Cahors (a little to the north of Toulouse), and reigned from 1316 to his death in 1334. His bull, Docta sanctorum, promulgated in 1323, complained bitterly about hockets, “depraved” discants, and “wanton” polytextuality (“upper parts made of secular songs”).1 These motettish extravagances were to be condemned, but “consonances” that respected the integrity of the sacred texts were judged desirable, because music, in moderation, can “soothe the hearer and inspire his devotion, without destroying religious feeling in the minds of the singers.” John might have been describing the Ordinary settings in the Apt and Ivrea codices.

Both manuscripts were fairly late artifacts of papal Avignon. Ivrea, the earlier of the two, was compiled around 1370. We have already encountered it as a source for one of Philippe de Vitry’s motets (Ex. 8-3; Fig. 8-4). Apt was not put together until the time of the antipopes, about thirty years later. The music these sources contain could have been composed at any time up to the date of its inscription. That music consists not of complete or “cyclic” ordinary settings but of individual items (“Mass movements,” as they are sometimes called, rather misleadingly) and occasional pairs. As a sample of Avignon service music, Ex. 9-11 contains the first section of a Kyrie from the Apt Manuscript. Motet-style hockets make an occasional appearance, and John XXII might not have entirely approved, but they are sung in the course of a melisma and no words are obscured. The piece is attributed to a local composer named Guymont.

When Ordinary settings were paired, it was primarily on the basis of shared textual characteristics, only secondarily on musical grounds. That is to say the Gloria and Credo, which contrast with the other Ordinary items by virtue of their lengthy prose texts, were a natural pair. Another natural pair were the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, both of which are repetitive petitions or litanies. The Sanctus, though not a prayer, has a short repetitive text and could make an effective pair with either the Kyrie or the Agnus Dei. Finally, the Kyrie and the dismissal (Ite, missa est) were frequently set to the same chant melody and could thus easily be paired in polyphonic settings. Once selected for pairing, ordinary settings were furnished with shared musical characteristics like those of the Kyrie and Ite, ranging from the general (common mode, similar vocal complement, and ranges) to the more particular (common textural styles, mensuration schemes, or even, occasionally, a joint fund of melodic ideas).

A Gloria and a Credo from the Ivrea manuscript show many of these common features. They were in all likelihood conceived and executed as a pair by the anonymous composer, although they are not presented that way in the manuscript, where all the Kyries are grouped together for ease of reference, followed by a section of Glorias, one of Credos, and so on. Their beginnings, together with an incipit showing the original clefs and mensuration signs, are given in Ex. 9-12.


ex. 9-11 Guymont, Kyrie


ex. 9-12 Original incipits and opening phrases in transcription


ex. 9-12b Ivrea 52 (Credo)

The clefs (which determine the vocal ranges) and the mensurations are among the factors linking them. They also share a final (D, making them Dorian or “minorish” pieces), which means that they will also share characteristic melodic turns and cadential patterns. Finally, they are both cast in the top-down cantilena texture. Only the top part is texted, which of course favors clarity of enunciation. The tenor and contratenor were probably meant to be vocalized, but the church organ could also have been used to accompany a soloist. Scholars are still debating this and many other points of “performance practice.”


ex. 9-13 Incipit and beginning of A siglum. Apt 27 (Sanctus)

Of course the two pieces do not have everything in common. Each has its distinguishing characteristics, each makes its own expressive gestures. And yet the similarities between the settings far outweigh their differences, and quite deliberately so. Pairing like this served a purpose. The Gloria and the Credo sampled in Ex. 9-12 enclosed between them a significant portion of the service: the synaxis, given over to scriptural readings. The recurrence of familiar musical sounds to pace and punctuate the service added an extra level of inspiring ceremonial to it. There is a Sanctus in the Apt manuscript—see Ex. 9-13 for its incipit and opening phrase—that is even more similar in its melodic contents to certain portions of the Ivrea Credo than the Ivrea Gloria. It might well have been modeled on the Credo, to secure an additional return to familiar sounds that would thus inspiritingly organize even more of the service, encompassing the beginning of the Eucharist as well. Basing one polyphonic piece on another like this was called parody, from the Greek for “alter the song.” It did not at this point have any connotation of satire.

By the “middle third” of the century (ca. 1335–70), the Avignon styles had spread throughout France. The Agnus Dei sampled in Ex. 9-14 comes from a manuscript that originated in Cambrai, at the far northern end of the kingdom, near the border of what was then the Duchy of Burgundy. It is in the “simultaneous” or homorhythmic style reminiscent of the conductus, and like the conductus it carries a single liturgical text in all voices. That, plus the uniform rhythm producing chord progressions in which the individual lines are blended, suggests the possibility of choral performance. If that was indeed an option for this music, then we are dealing with the earliest choral polyphony in the European tradition. (Still, the earliest explicit call for chorus—as opposed to unus, “one” singer—in polyphonic church music is not found until nearly a century later, in Italian manuscripts of the 1430s.)


(1) The translation is by H. E. Wooldridge, in The Oxford History of Music, Vol. I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1901), pp. 294–96.

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. 28 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009009.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 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009009.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 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009009.xml