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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

As a result of several recent discoveries, the Gloria of Machaut’s Mass has emerged as perhaps the most fascinating “movement” of all. It was long thought to be a conductus-style setting like the Credo (perhaps modeled, like it, on the Credo of the Mass of Tournai). Recently, however, it has been demonstrated—by the American scholar Anne Walters Robertson, a historian of medieval musical liturgies—that it is a polyphonic setting of the Gloria that follows the Kyrie Cunctipotens in Mass IV, the same tenth-century “doubles” formulary.2 The reason Machaut’s use of this melody went undetected so long is that the version he used was the version he knew: that of the Reims service books of his time, not the reconstructed “original” version found in the printed chant books of the twentieth century.

Following on this initial discovery was an even more remarkable one, that Machaut did not use the preexisting tune in the traditional manner of a cantus firmus but instead paraphrased it—a technique that involved both embellishing and streamlining it, making it yet harder to detect—and, rather than confining it to the tenor, allowed it to migrate freely throughout the texture. A paraphrased chant is not only embellished but also cast in a rhythmic and melodic style approximating that of the contemporary “song” or (or cantus) style; that is one reason why Machaut’s Gloria now tends to get classified as a cantilena rather than a conductus. Another is its pattern of open and closed cadences, which seems to fall into an AAB pattern repeated fourfold, reminding scholars of a strophic canso or ballade. Yet the work does not really conform to any ready-made category; it is a unique synthesis. The first of its main (AAB) sections is given in Ex. 9-16a.

Like all polyphonic settings of the Gloria, it begins with the words Et in terra pax (“And on earth, peace…”), because that is where the choir began to sing. (The opening phrase, “Glory to God in the highest,” was traditionally an intonation sung by the priest or “celebrant,” and so it had to remain in any properly liturgical setting.) In the score given in Ex. 9-16a, the polyphonic paraphrase is indicated by the use of little crosses (‘+’) above the chant-derived notes. Machaut was not in any real sense “quoting” the Gregorian chant, and it is altogether questionable whether he meant the paraphrase to be detected. It was, rather, a scaffolding device—there for the sake of (and of concern to) the builder, not the eventual users of the building.

The Amen (Ex. 9-16b) is a different story. From a fairly short chant melisma Machaut generated a very lengthy polyphonic one in “pseudomotet” style. “Pseudo” because the tenor is not really based on the plainsong but consists, rather, of a series of free variations on the plainsong’s basic melodic shape, a leap up a fourth from the final and a stepwise return. And although the texture clearly reverts to the motet style of the Kyrie, with the tenor in lengthy note values that suggest bottom-up cantus firmus technique, there is no actual isorhythm, and no necessity therefore, of laying the tenor out as an actual foundation. The steady rhythmic diminution from a beginning in longs and breves to a concluding blaze of hocketing and syncopating minims (with an especially conspicuous flurry just where one least expects it, in the contratenor) is another playfully motettish touch: it mimics the behavior of a motet without actually being one.


(2) Ann Walters Robertson, “The Mass of Guillaume de Machauit in the Cathedral of Reims,” in Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony, ed. T. Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 100–39.

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-div1-009013.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-div1-009013.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-div1-009013.xml