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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

Another word for a rubric like the “text” in this eccentric “rondeau”—especially one that, as here, enables the reader to deduce a concealed (because unnotated) voice-part—is canon. It is a Latinized Greek word that originally meant a stiff straight rod, and by extension came to mean, in the first place, a measuring rod, then anything that sets a standard or imposes a rule.

We know the word “canon” best, of course, in a different connection: to us it means a composition in which at least two parts are related by strict melodic imitation. But that modern, familiar musical meaning is actually a direct extension of the earlier meaning, since when two parts are in strict imitation, only one of them need be written down. The other can be “deduced” with the aid of a rubric or some other sign that directs one performer to sing the same part as another but enter later; or enter later and a fifth higher; or enter later, a fifth higher, and twice as slowly; or enter later, a fifth higher and twice as slowly, beginning with the last note and proceeding to the first with all the intervals inverted. To realize the unnotated part you have to follow the directions given by the “canon.” A piece with parts in strict imitation was thus “a piece with a canon,” and eventually just “a canon.”

There is of course a large unwritten repertory of simple imitative pieces sung for amusement. Anyone reading this book probably has known at least a few since childhood: “Row, row, row your boat,” or “Frère Jacques,” or “Hi ho, nobody home.” They are the simplest of all polyphonic pieces for a group of children to learn, because you only have to learn one melody to sing all the parts. And while they have a definite beginning, they have no end—or rather, no composed ending. (They usually end in giggles or elbows-jabbed-in-ribs rather than in cadences.) Such songs just go round and round—whence their name, of course. (The Latin for a “round” is rota; we will encounter a famous example shortly.) What we call canons are usually far more complex and artful—often artful to the point of tour de force—and depend on writing both to get made and to get learned. They are fully finished works with composed endings as well as beginnings. And sure enough, such pieces came into their own, along with so many other tour-de-force genres, precisely in the fourteenth century. The original French name for them was chace (compare chasse in modern French), and it was a pun. The word is a cognate of the English “chase,” which describes the behavior of the successively entering voices in a canon, each running after the last. The primary French meaning of la chasse, however, is “the hunt,” and it is reflected in the novel subject matter of several chaces (and even more so, as we shall see, in the cognate Italian genre, the caccia).

There are four chaces in the Ivrea manuscript which, as we know, otherwise contains mainly Mass ordinary settings for the use of Avignon. One of them, Se je chant mains, begins with ironic reflections on its own departure from the customary topic of courtly song: “If I sing less of my lady than usual… it is for love of falcons.” What follows is a three-part description of a falcon hunt, in which the middle section is truly a tour de force, but of a wholly new and off-beat type: a riot of hockets set to “words” mixing French, bird-language, and hound-language in an onomatopoetical mélange (Ex. 9-19). The interval of imitation in this chace is represented in the transcription as 2½ measures; hence, the music sung by the top voice at the beginning of Ex. 9-19 turns up in the second voice in the middle of the third bar, and in the third voice at the beginning of the sixth bar. The use of onomatopoeia (imitation of natural sounds) in the hocket-ridden middle section of a chace became a standard feature: one of the other chaces in Ivrea has cuckoo calls in that place, and a third, Tres dous compains, levez vous (“Dearest companions, get up”), has an elaborate carole or circle dance for a middle section, replete with imitations of rustic instruments. (To a noble aesthete, one should realize, dancing peasants and the music they played were a part of “nature”—an attitude that persisted at least until the eighteenth century.)


ex. 9-19 Se je chant mains, middle section

The chace reached a pinnacle with Machaut, who incorporated it into two of his nineteen narrative and descriptive poems known as lais. The form of a lai, one may recall, was similar to that of the liturgical sequence, consisting of a series of paired versets or couplets, each pair set to a new melody or formula. In his Lai de confort (“Lay of Succor”), Machaut allowed the form of the poem to be entirely absorbed into a continuous three-part chace texture. In the Lai de la fonteinne (“Lay of the fountain”), only the even-numbered couplets are set as chaces, so that the use of the polyphonic genre actually serves to articulate and highlight the poetic form.

And not only the form but the sense as well, which it symbolizes on an allegorical plane transcending the “materialistic” onomatopoeia of the Ivrea chaces. Machaut’s Lay of the Fountain is a meditation, by a lover whose lady has rejected him and who seeks solace in divine love, on the mysteries of the Virgin birth and the consubstiantiality of the Holy Trinity—three Persons in one Godhead. The image of the fountain appears in the fourth pair of verses, the second to be set as a chace. It is a trinitarian metaphor: “Imagine a fountain, a stream, and a canal; they are three, but the three make one; a single water through all three must run.” Just so, the chace serves as the metaphor’s metaphor: a single melody running through all three voices in a musical representation of trinus in unitate (“three in one”), the verbal emblem of the Trinity (Ex. 9-20).

The manuscript source contains only the single melody, with signs near the beginning to indicate the second and third entrances, and another set of signs near the end to indicate the finishing notes for the second and third voices. Possibly another level of trinitarian symbolism, but certainly a source of aural delight, is the elegant use of hockets. A single line, of course, can no more sing hockets than a single hand can clap. The line is full of strategically placed rests, however; when it is sung by itself it seems full of holes that are plugged by the other voices when the hocket texture is complete. Thus, the single line attains fullness only when complemented by its two canonic counterparts, as the full concept of Godhead subsumes the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The theological message is entrancingly—yes, sensuously—delivered by the delicately wrought contrapuntal texture, the three statements of the tune fitting together like pieces in an aural jigsaw puzzle. That is harmony in the most literal, etymological sense. Like the Trinity itself, a well-wrought chace can be far more than the sum of its parts; and this particular chace is possibly Machaut’s greatest feat of subtilitas.


ex. 9-20 Guillaume de Machaut, Chace 4 from Lai de la fonteinne

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009016.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009016.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009016.xml