Recorded November 2001
The release of their recording of Guillaume de Machaut marks the 30th anniversary of the Hilliard Ensemble. The group was founded early in 1974 and gave its first concert at All Souls' Church in London with a line-up that already included the distinctive countertenor of David James, which continues to define its signature sound. Although the Hilliard personnel expands with guest musicians to meet the needs of specific projects (e.g. the addition of second countertenor David Gould here, or soprano Monika Mauch on the acclaimed "Morimur" and "Ricercar" discs), the core unit of James/Covey-Crump/Jones has been in place since the beginning of the 1990s, and musical associations between the singers, in other contexts, go back much further. Tenor Steven Harrold, the most recent inductee, has been a member of the group since 1998.
Music of Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) has been in the Hilliard's repertoire for decades, and in the 1980s the group recorded his Messe de Notre Dame for Hyperion, in a version deemed definitive by many critics. The current recording of the Machaut Motets is based upon a new edition prepared by long-time Hilliard Ensemble associate and musicologist Nicky Losseff. In her detailed liner note she describes the Motets as "replete with hidden meanings, multiple commentaries and complex musical procedures…Yet it is Machaut's ability to pierce the heart, not his cleverness, that can overwhelm the listener on an emotional level."
Machaut is revered by contemporary musicians for his experimental daring (Hilliard baritone Gordon Jones speaks of the "almost unbelievable virtuosity" of the Motets), for his melismatic melody and the rhythmic elasticity of his pieces. The musical scope of his work marked a great compositional leap forward, and it has become commonplace to consider him an 'avant-garde' composer of his time… He was, clearly, an independent thinker, and his "freely fantasized art" was strictly tied to neither church nor court, though he wrote for both. A composer of genius, he stands as one of the first great figures of Western music.
As a poet, too, Machaut achieved great renown. It is only recently however that scholars have begun to understand the spiritual allegory implicit in Machaut's love poetry. This cycle of motets "carries potent religious implications, outlining allegorically nothing less than the steps of a religious journey." Machaut's texts have an affinity with the "mystic literature of Richard Rolle, Henry Suso and Baldwin of Ford - writers for whom earthly concepts of love were juxtaposed with the spiritual to create language of great emotional force. Thus, Machaut's fervent intellectual conception of courtly love is allied to the mystics' equally passionate yet highly structured portrayals of endless longing for Christ."
Whether one chooses to interpret the texts from a sacred or secular perspective there can be no denying that the marriage of words and music in Machaut is always extraordinarily graceful.
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Machaut and the language of pain
Guillaume de Machaut, composer and poet of the imagination in more senses than one, has almost overpowered our understanding of the musical fourteenth century. There are more biographical clues for him than for any other composer of his age; the predilection for constructing history in terms of "great people" has ensured that our few definite pieces of knowledge have been fleshed out to their limits. Thus, as Daniel Leech-Wilkinson has said in his book Machaut's Mass: An Introduction, the composer exists "mainly in our imagination, a fate that would probably have delighted him". Born in about 1300 and probably receiving a traditional choirboy's education in the cathedral school of Reims, he made his way to Paris where he entered royal service. During mid life, he returned to Reims and led the more sedentary life of a canon, the daily round of Office and Mass ordering his days. Before his death in 1377, he found time to see to the compilation of numerous manuscripts of his complete works: a Mass, twenty-three motets, over sixty polyphonic songs, and many other works. He was equally renowned as a poet.
Machaut is often contrasted with his elder contemporary Philippe de Vitry. The latter, apparently a quintessentially ambitious "man of the world", gave up his highly-ordered brand of composition for affairs of church and state. In contrast, Machaut's highly wrought poems and songs bespeak a morbidly sensitive inner life, the thinnest of skins, a penchant for turning a phrase like a knife twisting in the heart. The motets reveal this no less than the polyphonic songs. Motets are constructed initially from a fragment of plain-song which is moulded into a slow, rhythmic phrase and repeated throughout the composition - hence the designation "isorhyth-mic", meaning "same rhythm". This voice-part is known as the tenor (holding voice). Machaut's tenors seem to have been chosen for their highly emotional quality, repeating cries of terror, fear, insecurity, resignation, pleading: "Suspiro" (l sigh); "Quare non sum mortuus?" (Why did I not die?); "Et non est qui adjuvet"(And there is no one to help); "Tribulatio proxima est" (Trouble is near), etc. These sentiments then, of course, underpin the motet both emotionally and musically. Though the texts of the tenors were not sung, listeners were familiar enough with the original plainsong to recognise their derivation. So, their repetition conceptually reinforces the images they proclaim: Machaut actually wrote these tenor designations into the manuscripts so there should be no mistaking their intent. The tenor then becomes the basis for the more florid upper voices, each of which sings a different text: the motetus is the line above the tenor, the triplum the line above that, and (for the four-part pieces) the quadruplum above that. The upper voices are designed to gloss the tenor's text, though often in obscure ways.
The obscurity of this process is nowhere more apparent than in Motets 1 to 17 (henceforth M1, M2, etc). With upper voices' texts scarcely distinguishable from other courtly love poetry, they have long puzzled commentators seeking a link to the tenor snippets which they seem to contradict. Recently, in her book Guillaume de Machaut and Reims, Anne Walters Robertson has suggested that these particular songs form a cycle within the corpus of twenty-three motets that carries potent religious implications, outlining allegorically nothing less than the steps of a religious journey. She observes that the tenors have an affinity with the mystic literature of Richard Rolle, Henry Suso and Baldwin of Ford - writers for whom earthly concepts of love were juxtaposed with the spiritual to create language of great emotional force. Thus, Machaut's fervent, intellectual conception of courtly love is allied to the mystics' equally passionate yet highly structured portrayals of endless longing for Christ. Robertson reminds us that openly sensuous texts such as the Song of Songs had long been read allegorically and that otherwise their tendency would have been corruptive. The "Lover" of the motets, courting a hardhearted "Lady" whom he is finding difficult to "possess", is analogous to the Christian Disciple, whose journey seeking Christ is beset with pitfalls - Christ was even often portrayed as Lady Wisdom in the Middle Ages.
The Lover is prepared to suffer for the Lady but observes that in loving, a sweet thing should not become bitter. The "sighing" theme at the beginning of M2 speaks of the Lover's deep wounding by his intense love for the Lady, concluding that Joy is more likely to be his if he sighs aloud, expressing his anguish, than if he keeps silent. However, the personifications Refusal and Resistance only let him look at the Lady mutely. The religious context of this motet is in a type of devotional literature popular in the fourteenth century known as Suspira, reflecting the desire of the religious to be with God expressed through sighs. The demise of the Lady in M3 allows the Lover to contemplate death, just as the mystic's meditation on Christ's Passion was central to the spiritual journey. Themes of remembrance in M4, and acceptance and a willingness to suffer in M5, give way to the sinister and deeply dramatic Motets 7 to 9, which perhaps depict the "dark night of the soul" that is necessary before enlightenment. Moving away from psychological obsession, here we see Fortune blamed for the desertion of the Lover by the Lady, but told in the female voice with the Lady herself lamenting her actions. The texts evoke the Echo and Narcissus myth, focussing on the sin of Pride, who was depicted as female. Machaut probably meant the female gender of the triplum's protagonist to be understood symbolically as well as literally here. Fortune's deceptive appearance is warned against, but the Lover cannot escape death at her hands: the tenor announces "Et non est qui adjuvet" (And there is no one to help). M8's focus on sin prepares us for the encounter with the Devil himself in M9. The solo opening seems to depict hand-to-hand combat between the Lover and Satan. After this confrontation with Evil, the Lover enters a phase of higher self-awareness, and from here to the end of the cycle, though there are many pitfalls along the way (yearnings and languishings for the pitiless Lady), the overall mood is towards optimism. At the end of the cycle, the Lover will achieve union with the Lady. The world is perfectly ordered; the Lover, complaining about the nature of Love, can stand back and see both the beautiful world and its pain.
The following motets are associated with Reims cathedral. Bone pastor (M18) is dedicated to archbishop Guillaume de Trie. Guillaume was almost universally loathed by the canons of Reims who strongly resisted his dominating policies. In 1327 he excommunicated a third of them and placed the city under an interdict that disallowed them from celebrating the divine Office. Bone pastor, rather than honouring him, seems to be exhorting Guillaume to behave more like his archiepiscopal forebears. Because of this struggle, the canons decided to meet instead at the church of St Quentin (where Machaut enjoyed a benefice) in the town of the same name to discuss their concerns. M19, dedicated to St Quintinus, is connected with these events. Some new wall carvings depicting the life of the saint had recently been installed at the church, and it is touching to think of the canons looking at them while they listened to the polyphony. M 20 is probably for Machaut's favourite patroness, Bonne of Luxembourg, who had died of the plague.
The last three motets are constructed on a grander scale than the others. They are longer and for four voices rather than three. All begin with extended duets. They are associated with the Hundred Years War, which had begun in 1337, and which had started with a terrifying series of English victories. For Machaut, the nadir of this period must have been the six-week Siege of Reims, which however ended in English withdrawal. After the long, vocalised opening Introitus of M21, whose tenor says "Veni creator spiritus" (Come Creator Spirit), the other voices borrow from hymns whose texts are about protection and defence. The references to lions and leopards are to the English King Edward III. M22 rebukes a duke who has failed to give full protection to the city of Reims. M23 is a votive piece for the Virgin which also describes the political situation. Such Marian petitions were common in the Middle Ages: Mary was seen as a gentle intercessor before the more remote figure of Jesus, who would speak kindly on the behalf of humans.
Motets were, without doubt, a genre of and for the intelligentsia, replete with hidden meanings, multiple commentaries and complex musical procedures. Yet it is Machaut's ability to pierce the heart, not his cleverness, that can overwhelm the listener on an emotional level: his eloquence is one that only too glaringly articulates, through a new musical language, pain. Whether or not we have overestimated the composer-poet's eminence in his own time is unimportant: it is his status as the first medieval composer to communicate suffering with such power which is perhaps more fundamental to whatever relevance he holds for us now.
- Nicky Losseff