Studio der Fruhen Musik
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Guillaume De Machaut
There can be little doubt that Guillaume de Machaut is the best-known composer of the 14th century. His complete poetical and musical works have been before us in scholarly editions for several generations; how surprising then to find he is so little understood.
The renaissance of Machaut was perhaps premature. He became widely known as the composer of the earliest complete polyphonic setting of the ordinary of the mass; this mass has been published and recorded many times. Yet it remains a peripheral work neither typical of his writing nor central to his musical thinking. Machaut is often lauded as the composer of songs displaying clever erudite techniques (e. g. "My end is my beginning"). He is praised as the earliest composer to write many polyphonic songs. His motets are sometimes mentioned, as is his David Hocket, a singular work and, like the mass, not particularly relevant to his genius. Being the first or last to do anything is no measure of greatness. Machaut's monophonic music is seldom discussed and still less often performed. Yet it was one of his favourite areas of work, and clearly reveals essential features of his art.
We must recognize that Machaut was a songwriter whose great breadth of genius, spanning areas of experimentation and areas ot tradition, nearly always brings three things into focus: text, music and structure. He was a master craftsman in dealing with his words and music, and a balanced perception of his contribution requires an understanding of his work, in the area of monophony and of polyphony; for in spite of everything, polyphonic song is not simply monophonic song with the addition of accompanying parts (his correspondence with Perronne, seemingly to the contrary, notwithstanding). A careful look at his melodies reveals a different approach to melodic writing as between these contrasting techniques, in the use of rests and leaps, and more particularly in affect.
We have selected for this recording monophonic works that reflect the broad spectrum of his monophonic composition. How different and how remarkable are these works! What an array of forms: planctus, cantus coronatus, lai and virelai. Needless to say, the texts are of high literary quality: not indulgently expressive in the manner of a Byron, for Machaut addressed himself to a courtly French audience possessing the sensitivity required to appreciate his spectacular virtuosity, through which words served functions of imagery and structure as well. With a word, he can create or shatter an ambience, he can delight and move. When he brings his texts into music, they are set off with a touch ot objectivity that results from absolute control of all structural details.
Some sense of his structures he has imparted in the Remede de fortune, an intriguing if rambling poetical work containing seven musical illustrations. Three of these are included here, and we have provided just a snatch of his verse before each of the three pieces, so as to offer the listener the opportunity of hearing the sound of his language and his poetry. The several spoken lines are not part of the music of course, but an introduction.
It is perhaps questionable to suggest that a piece of music requires any introduction, yet I feel the hurried listener will appreciate a word about the pieces. Of the fountain is a lai of about average length for Machaut. It consists of twelve sections alternating, as I believe was his intention, between solo and chorus. The chorus sections, marked chasse, are written as three-part canons (and form the most intriguing canons of the 14th century). Even the solo sections are so designed to permit canonic performance, an observation which has been taken into consideration in the shaping of the accompaniments. As is customary with Machaut's lais, the final section is like the opening section but transposed down a fourth.
This is not true of one lai by Machaut, Loyaute. In this piece there are only two sections of music; they serve two poetic structures which alternate in an irregular pattern of pairs. A followed by B or A and B followed B or A. There are twelve such pairs, but we found it necessary to cut part of the text in order to fit it on this record; we feel the essence of the piece and its structure rest intact.
The text of another piece is also cut, the planctus Tel rit, which with its 36 strophes would fill a whole record by itself. This striking melody, so clearly a complainte, must be included even if it means shortening it by many strophes. The recitation of some strophes follows the documented practice of the 13th and 14th centuries of reciting the texts of songs in conjunction with the musical performance of them. There is no polyphonic form even vaguely similar to the complainte, although in the virelais we find both polyphonic and monophonic examples. They are similar in both length and style (after all they are virelais) for Machaut was careful to relate subject matter with structure and style. This relationship is not a matter of word-note correlation, but consists of a much more abstract and subtle suggestiveness.
The chanson royale Joie plaisence, which we hold to be the sort of song Grocheo called cantus coronatus because of the structure of the melody, is written to make possible the ornaments described by Grocheo (which the above-mentioned complainte cannot accommodate). The accompaniments are our own, following a principle unstated but undeniable: each instrument through its own characteristics places its peculiar stamp on the accompaniment, which thus develops out of the playing technique of the instrument rather than the rules of counterpoint. The neuma or instrumental tails which conclude some of the pieces, on the other hand, are taken from Grocheo's list and are related only to the mode of the melody. Grocheo, writing in Paris about 1300, is no contemporary of Machaut's, but it is difficult to imagine any pertinent changes in this area.
The instruments employed are those of Machaut's time and place. He mentioned them all many times, along with dozens more. But alas there is not time on a single disc to bring in the wealth of 14th-century French instruments, and thus we have kept the number to a minimum so that the concentration is upon Machaut's genius rather than on the colourful instruments of his time. Voices are instruments too, of course, and we have taken cognizance of the head, throat and chest voices discussed by the theorists of the time. Also, we invited some young girls from Marseilles to sing with us (which is one reason why we made the recording there). We feel Machaut would have liked that idea, and the listener will be grateful for the timeless sound of these French voices.
Another reason for selecting Marseilles was the ancient abbey of St Victor on the hill overlooking the bay. Machaut must have known the abbey: he may have visited it on his way to Cyprus, and St Victor, quite apart from Machaut, has secured for itself an important place in still earlier music history. We set up the microphones in the humid crypt a few yards from where recent excavations uncovered 5th-century Christian-Roman stonework and not much further from the entrance to a secret passageway running beneath the sea across to the other side of the bay. The ambience was most rewarding - a far cry from modern studios - with the result that the whole project was completed in a very short time.
-Thomas Binkley, 1972