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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

But of course sobriquets like “decadent” imply judgment not only on the music, the musicians, and the notation they employed, but also on the audiences, which is to say the society that supported such a rarefied art. Ars subtilior composition flourished in two main centers. One was the south of France, the territory of old Aquitaine, whose traditions of trobar clus it was in a sense upholding. This territory included papal Avignon, as we know, as well as the duchy of Berry and the county of Foix at the foot of the Pyrenees, where Gaston III (known as Fébus, after Phoebus Apollo, the Olympian sun god), governor of Languedoc, maintained a court of legendary extravagance. The chronicler Jehan Froissart, one of Gaston’s protégés, endorsed his patron’s boast, made about 1380, that during the fifty years of his lifetime there had been more feats and marvels to relate than in the preceding 300 years of history. The ars subtilior is best understood, perhaps, as an expression of that culture of feats and marvels.

Like Froissart, many of the poet-composers of the ars subtilior worked under Gaston’s protection and memorialized him in their work. One such court composer—Jehan Robert, who in the riddling spirit of the times signed his work “Trebor”—proclaimed in a grand ballade, suitably full of marvelous feats of syncopation and polymeter, that “if Julius Caesar, Roland, and King Arthur were famous for their conquests, and Lancelot and Tristan for their ardor, today all are surpassed in arms, renown and nobility by the one whose watchword is ‘Phoebus, advance!”’

That ballade, like most of the grandiose dedicatory ballades that survive from its time and place, is found in a marvelous late fourteenth-century manuscript, a real feat of calligraphy that, having once belonged to Le Grand Condé, the great seventeenth-century general, is now kept at the Musée Condé in Chantilly, to the north of Paris. Its southern origins are well attested by its contents: besides the pieces in honor of Gaston Fébus, there are several dedicated to Jean, the Duke of Berry, whose court, located in the city of Bourges, rivaled Gaston’s in magnificence. (Jean’s fantastically sumptuous breviary or prayer book, known as the “Très riches heures” after the “hours” of the Office, is a well-known testimony to that magnificence; see fig. 9-6.)

The poet-composer most closely associated with Jean’s court, it appears, was a man named Solage, whose dates and even whose first name are unknown, but all ten of whose surviving works are found in the Chantilly codex. Seven of the ten are ballades (three of them making reference to the patron), but Solage’s best known work is a bizarre rondeau called Fumeux fume (“Smoky smoke”; Ex. 9-23). It stands out from the whole ars subtilior repertory for the way its composer makes a tour de force out of chromatic harmony (or musica ficta causa pulchritudinis) with the same exploratory intensity that drove his contemporaries to their recondite mensural caprices.

Such outlandish chromaticism (as observed in chapter 8) was another legacy of Machaut, whose style Solage seems deliberately to have copied in several works. The “smoke” connection was another link, albeit an indirect one, with the earlier master. The fumeux were a sort of waggish literary guild or club, presided over by none other than Eustache Deschamps, Machaut’s self-designated poetic heir. According to Deschamps’s biographer Hoepffner, this society of whimsical eccentrics met at least from 1366 to 1381, striving to outdo one another in “smoky”— recondite or far-out—fancies and conceits.

Berry and Foix

fig. 9-6 “The Adoration of the Magi,” from the Très riches heures du duc de Berry (1416).

Berry and FoixBerry and Foix

ex. 9-23 Solage, Fumeux fume (rondeau)

Solage, with his smoky harmonies and smokier tessitura, may have outdone them all. Note, as one particular subtilitas that distinguishes this droll composition, that the accidentals drift flatward (“fa-ward”) in the first section and sharpward (“mi-ward”) in the second. The question of mode is altogether to laugh. The music begins on a concord of G, ends on F, with a middle stop on a ficta note, E-flat—“smoky speculation” indeed!

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. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009018.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. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009018.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. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009018.xml