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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

Machaut’s art, like all “high” art in aristocratic France, was a connoisseur’s art: an art of literati whose tastes were flattered by tours de force. Such a taste flattered the artist as well, and encouraged the fashioning, even in “secular” contexts, of complex artworks full of hidden meanings and arcane structural relationships. One might even look upon the musico-poetic legacy of the Ars Nova as another resurgence of the trobar clus favored by the noblest troubadours—“artistic art,” as an early twentieth-century philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, put it in trying to come to grips with the artistic avant-garde of his own day. The seeming redundancy of the expression is actually very apt. As Ortega explained, indulging his own elitism by using a fashionably obscure Greek term for “the common people,” artistic art is “an art for artists and not for the masses, for ‘quality’ and not for hoi polloi.” Its outstanding feature is subtilitas.

The easiest way of translating the word subtilitas into English would be to give its cognate, “subtlety.” The word literally denotes fineness and delicacy, which are already aristocratic values (as anyone knows who knows the story of the princess and the pea). From the artistic point of view, even more pertinent are the word’s connotations—the meanings it suggests by analogy or indirection. These include both allusiveness and elusiveness, qualities that point to something easily missed (as when we speak of “subtle wit” or “subtle irony”); or something faint and mysteriously suggestive (as when we speak of “a subtle smile”); or something requiring mental acuteness or agility to perceive (as when we speak of “a subtle point” in argument). In most general terms, the word suggests a focus on the small, on details.

Machaut created several works notable for intellectual cleverness and intricacy of detail. Of these the most famous was a “rondeau,” the complete text of which reads as follows:

A Ma fin est mon commencement

B et mon commencement ma fin

a Et teneure vraiement.

A Ma fin est mon commencement

a Mes tiers chans trois fois seulement

b se retrograde et einsi fin.

A Ma fin est mon commencement

B et mon commencement ma fin.

My end is my beginning

and my beginning my end

And this holds truly. (Or: And truly the tenor.)

My end is my beginning.

My third voice gets to reverse itself only

three times before the end.

My end is my beginning

and my beginning my end.

But this is not really a rondeau at all, nor is the text really a text. The original notation of the piece, as entered in one of Machaut’s personally supervised manuscripts, is shown in Fig. 9-4. The whole piece is transcribed as Ex. 9-18. For maximum amusement, compare the explanation that follows with the original notation before looking at the transcription.

The “text,” although it makes reference to a famous religious proverb about eternity, is really a description of the piece, or a direction (rubric) for performance. The piece is notated as a rondeau among Machaut’s other rondeaux as a sort of joke. The whole point of the piece is the strange way in which its first half (“my beginning”) relates to its second half (“my end”), the rondeau being the one fixed form whose two halves, unlike those of the ballade, are played straight through, and whose final cadence, unlike the virelai’s, comes at the end of the second half.


fig. 9-4 Guillaume de Machaut’s rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement, as it appears on folio 136 of Paris , Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fonds Français 9221, a manuscript containing the collected works of Machaut, copied for Jean Duc de Berry (d. 1416). The song begins on the fourth notated line. Only two of its three parts are written down: one without text (incorrectly labeled “Tenor” in this source; it should read “Contratenor,” as it does in other manuscripts); the other with the text upside down and to be read backward (forming the tenor), while another performer reads it normally (forming the cantus). Only the first half of the (contra)tenor is given. At the point where it ends (the three-note ligature at the beginning of the fifth notated line), the musician reading it is to reverse direction and perform it again from back (fin) to front (commencement).

The piece is notated in two parts, but the text refers to the “third part,” so we know that there is an unnotated part. That third part is labeled contratenor, so we know that the unnotated part is the tenor, of which we read that its end is its beginning. The contratenor is only half as long as the other notated part (the cantus), and we are told that it reverses itself. So we have a hint that it must double back on itself for “complete” statements of the two halves (AB) within the rondeau form, of which (the text reminds us) there are three. So this doubling-back or going backwards must also be the way the unnotated tenor is to be derived from the notated cantus. (Proceeding backward was known as cancrizans motion after the word for “crab,” an animal evidently thought in those days to walk backward rather than sideways.) Thus the whole song can be “realized” from the rubric: Accompany the cantus with its own cancrizans (and note that when this is done, the tenor actually behaves like a tenor at the final cadence), and supplement the contratenor with its cancrizans to fill out the required length.


ex. 9-18 Guillaume de Machaut, Ma fin est mon commencement in transcription

The result is what is given in the transcription. It is the sort of thing Machaut would have called a resolutio: an explicitly written-out (therefore “unsubtle”) solution to a puzzle he expected adept musicians to solve directly from his incomplete notation and the textual hints. The joy of the piece consists not only in the enjoyment of its pretty sounds but in the triumph over unnecessary but delightful obstacles. One enjoys the puzzle-solving process as well as the result. Without the process the result would not be as enjoyable, just as without the hurdles an obstacle race would not be as exciting. And there we see the relationship between art and sport, something else that can be done (when not done “professionally”) entirely for its own sake, and which, since it requires skill, is most thrilling to doer and spectator alike when it is most difficult. That principle of creative virtuosity is the root principle of trobar clus.

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. 17 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009015.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 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009015.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 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009015.xml