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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

Such references were made explicit in a special subgenre of chansons that stood at the opposite end of the rhetorical spectrum from the high-flown ballades associated with the ars subtilior. From the beginning the ballade was the loftiest of the fixed forms—the direct descendent of the noble canso, whose stanza structure it retained. The virelai was always the humblest, descending from the pastorela, later the chanson baladé—the literally danced songs with refrains that accompanied the carole. As we know, even in Machaut’s time the virelai remained a largely monophonic genre. By the last quarter of the fourteenth century, even the lowly dance song had begun to put forth some ars subtilior plumage—but its “subtleties” were of a sort that accorded with its content. The virelai became the site of sophisticated, even virtuoso, parodies of rustic and “natural” music.

Just as it had been in troubadour times (and just as it would be, say, in the time of Marie Antoinette with her little “peasant village” for rustic play-acting on the palace grounds at Versailles), we are dealing here with the esthetic appropriation of a lifestyle. Adam de la Halle’s “Play of Robin and Marion,” we may recall, was played neither by nor for Robin and Marion. It was played by professional minstrels for a noble audience who enjoyed sentimentally contrasting the “simplicity” of the happy rustics on display with the artifice and duplicity of their own privileged lives. The anonymous virelai Or sus, vous dormez trop (“Get up, Sleepyhead”; Ex. 9-26), with characters suitably named Robin and Joliet, is another happy exercise in unrealistic “naturalism.”

We have already noted some of its naturalistic (onomatopoetic) devices in the context of the chace, especially the ones in the Ivrea manuscript; and sure enough, Ivrea is among this popular virelai’s numerous sources. Everything in it seems drawn from life: the mock-carole in the inner verses (the “B” section), where the text mentions drums (nacquaires) and bagpipes (cornemuses), and all three parts begin imitating them, even down to the bagpipe’s drone in the contratenor; or the punning bird calls, in actual bird-French, in the “turnaround” (volte) and refrain (the “A” section), where the lark sings “what God is telling you” (Que-te-dit-Dieu), and the goldfinch is heard “making his song” (fay-chil-ciant).

Precisely where the birds take over, of course, we get a typical rhythmic “subtlety”—reiterated groups of four minims in the cantus part against a beat of perfect (three-minim) semibreves. This ornithological sesquitertia (4:3) proportion, a virtuoso turn for composer and singer alike, is a perfect paradigm of the faux-naïf, or patrician mock-simplicity: sophisticated artlessness, high-tech innocence—or, to quote Debussy joshing Stravinsky after seeing the latter’s Rite of Spring, “primitive music with all modern conveniences.”


ex. 9-26 Anon., Or sus, vous dormez trop (virelai), mm. 22-30

This virelai, with its vivid, somewhat hedonistic portrayal of benign nature as something to enjoy rather than (as the contemporary motet would have it) to stand in awe of, makes a fitting close to this chapter—not just because it signals a new or a changed esthetic outlook that will find further expression in the music that will follow, but also because it reminds us that we need to take a closer look at the contemporaneous vernacular music of Italy, where throughout the fourteenth century composers had been celebrating “pleasant places” in song.

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. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009020.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009020.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009020.xml