Emmanuel Bonnardot (voice, fiddle, rebec, cittern, vihuela d'arco)
Recording date: June 1996 (Bretagne)
This recording emphasizes Machaut's monophonic writing, including just two polyphonic tracks. The others are accompanied by drone, which serves to underscore certain melodic figures. The performance practice dates back to Binkley and beyond, but there is little to confirm it one way or another in 14th century sources.
This is a highly polished rendition. Note track transposition between CD & liner notes at 7 & 8.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
Machaut's Genius is fully recognized, but his monodic works deserve to be better known. He was the last trouvere, poet and composer, and with him died the monodic world of the learned composers of the west.
His virelais, or 'chansons balladees' as he preferred to call them, have a trace of folk art about them, while being exquisitely wrought products of a writer of poetry and melodies so natural as to create an impression of utter effortlessness. They are songs to dance to, to hum to oneself, with frequent repeated sections and a compelling charm.
The use of drone basses, which was common in the Middle Ages in a wide variety of traditions, lends rhythm, power or rather density to the sounds. Accompanying these works on the various fiddles also provides 'arrangements', bringing out the hesitation between two different modes in He dame de valour, and the uncertainty about the final E over the drone on G in Quant je sui mis au retour. In Mors sui se je ne vous voy and Moult sui de bonne heure nee, the tenor written by Machaut is treated as a counter-melody; here the fiddle provides much more than a mere accompaniment, and functions as a genuine second voice. The use of the instrument's upper octave to accompany the words of the woman in Moult sui de bonne heure nee is a reply to the deep male voice in Moult sui se je ne vous voy. One can also opt for simple solutions like playing the melody alone on an instrument or singing without accompaniment, both bringing home a sense of sheer naked truth (Ay mil Dame de valour, Dame je weil endurer, Helas! et comment, C'est force faire).
In Le lay de plour, the metallic sound of the cittern takes us into a world of magic, reminding us of the Celtic background in which the genre was created. The breadth of the work - its great range of pitch as well as its length - goes well beyond the framework of an ordinary song. It is an opera in miniature in which the singer is both narrator and protagonist; the rigour of the relationship between the text and the music (very little melismatic writing and practically no complex vocal ornaments) reinforces the depth and the overwhelmingly convincing power of this poetic masterpiece.
Following in the path of the jongleurs who performed the works of the trouveres in the Middle Ages, I have sought through the spontaneity of the voice and the colours of the instruments to give life and humanity to the sublime and timeless an of Guillaume de Machaut.
-Emmanuel Bonnardot (translation: John Sidgwick)
Was Guillaume De Machaut the only French composer of the fourteenth century? An examination of those surviving sources which time and posterity have spared might lead us to think so. For no other musician of the time do we possess so rich and complete a set of manuscripts. This piece of good fortune in itself signals Machaut as the herald of the musical innovations symbolized by the term Ars nova. When Machaut's friend and colleague Philippe de Vitry (c1290-1361) gave the title Ars nova to his radical new treatise on notational and compositional techniques, written in about 1320, he was putting into words the expressly modern desire of the musicians of the early fourteenth century to make a clean break with a past which they judged to be obsolete. It was above all the ability to notate musical rhythm with real precision that allowed the 'new system' to evolve. The art of counterpoint, consisting in the addition of melodic lines one above or below the other, punctus contra punctum, now became a technique of considerable complexity. Polyphonic writing became more elaborate and varied, and the composer's skill became a more 'learned' art. A threshold was reached in music history, after which written traditions based on notated texts tended to take precedence over oral traditions.
Machaut is the undisputed master of polyphonic secular song in the fourteenth century. Although he was not its inventor or first practitioner - having been preceded by such composers as Adam de La Halle (c1240-c1285) and Jehan de Lescurel (d.1304) - he wrote a considerable number of polyphonic rondeaux and ballades, two genres which survived in a flourishing condition throughout the fifteenth century in the hands of Guillaume Dufay (cl400-1474) and Johannes Ockeghem (d410-l497). Alongside these polyphonic compositions, Machaut's monophonic music is today often neglected. His lais are held to be archaic, his virelais somewhat simplistic, and it is indeed true that these compositions do not correspond to the avant-garde image of the 'modernist' Ars nova composer. But it would be to falsify history to confine such a wide-ranging musician and poet as Machaut within the role of a 'precursor' of later trends. For it is arguably in monody that the essence of truly lyric poetry is realized, as the words are intimately allied to melodic shapes, and this fusion gives expression to the personal utterance and feeling of the poet-musician.
Guillaume de Machaut was born probably in the Champagne region around the turn of the fourteenth century. We know nothing of his childhood and youth until, in 1323, at a time when he must have been in his early twenties, he became private secretary to John of Luxembourg. This great feudal lord, King of Bohemia and stalwart and inalienable ally of the royal house of France, travelled the length and breadth of Europe in pursuit of his various military and political campaigns, and his secretary followed faithfully at his side throughout these often turbulent peregrinations. In 1340 Machaut decided, without leaving the employ of his patron, to retire to Rheims as a canon of the cathedral, where he led the sedentary life of a tonsured cleric. Yet he did not entirely forego or reject the world. After the heroic death of John of Luxembourg - who had become blind - at the battle of Crecy in 1346, Machaut cultivated the relationships that bound him to the higher reaches of the nobility and to the royal family of France. For the refined 'knights, ladies and maidens/ Whose hands are beautiful, rounded and shapely' (Dit de la Harpe, 255-256), Machaut composed an abundance of poems. His output was copied, at the request of his illustrious patrons and admirers, into a set of manuscripts beautifully written in calligraphic script and richly illuminated. The author himself seems to have supervised their preparation and production, since all the pieces are meticulously ordered: the narrative poems or dits, which are purely literary, come before the compositions in lyric style and the sacred works (the Mass and Latin motets). Only a part of the writings in lyric style (consisting of lais, ballades, rondeaux, virelais, as they are ordered in the manuscripts) is set to music. In Machaut's case, the poet ultimately takes precedence over the musician.
The influence and inheritance of the trouveres is clear in Machaut's output. Significantly, perhaps, it is not the learned, complex counterpoint of the ballades and rondeaux that he places in significant positions within the body of the collection. Rather, it is the monophonic lais and virelais which open and close the section of Machaut's manuscripts devoted to 'lyric' poetry - and it is precisely these genres, in fact, that Machaut most frequently chose to set to music: 19 out of a total of 24 lais, 33 out of 39 virelais have musical notation, while for the ballade and the rondeau the figures are appreciably lower. It is true that four of the lais also lend themselves to polyphonic performance, since they are notated as a chace (i.e. in canonic imitation, the lines 'chasing' after one another). And a handful of virelais - including, for example, Mors sui and Moult sui- are also written for two voices. Yet these seem to be merely a few rare attempts to adapt ancient forms to the more modern taste of the day. Machaut the polyphonist, Machaut the innovator - certainly; but he was also the inheritor of a long tradition, and this is another important area of his activity which helps to complete the portrait of our musician.
Lais and virelais: the poetic forms The anonymous fifteenth-century author of the Regles de seconde rhetorique praised Guillaume de Machaut for having 'recreated all poetic forms and perfected the art of love songs'. For, even if he did not invent them, Machaut clarified the metrical and strophic structures of lyric poetry in the various genres: lai, virelai, ballade, rondeau.
Virelais, rondeaux and ballades are all strophic forms whose origins seem to be closely bound up with the dance-song. Machaut restricted the number of strophes in the virelai to three, all preceded and followed by the refrain (A); each strophe has a clear bipartite structure: the first part is sung to a melody which is sung twice (bb) while the lines of the second borrow the music of the refrain (a).
The overall structure of the virelai is thus as follows: A bba A bba A bba A (see page 29, Comment qu'a moy lonteinne). The forms of the virelai and ballade were not fully distinguished from each other before Machaut's efforts at clarification, since they both consist of three strophes followed by a short refrain. Machaut nonetheless wrote two virelais, which he also set to music (e.g. Quant je sui mis au retour), which display a structure very close to that of the ballade. Indeed, Machaut does not use the term 'virelai' at all, preferring that of' chanson balladee'.
It is not possible to be absolutely certain about the 'choreographic' or dance function of the virelai during the era of the Ars nova. Machaut himself refers to it in his Remede de Fortune, where the lady invites the poet to join the 'round' which she is dancing with other noble knights and ladies; soon she asks him to sing, and he begins to perform a virelai. Such dance-songs played on the idea of a regular alternation between the strophes (performed by a soloist) and a refrain (taken up by all the participating dancers). This elementary principle also occurs in Machaut's learned works - as for example in Comment qu'a moy lonteinne and Moult sui de bonne heure nee - in the stylized form of an opposition between different registers: the refrain lies in a middle tessitura while the strophes are sung in a higher register.
Machaut's lais are written within the framework of a very ancient tradition. The term was used by Marie de France in the twelfth century, and this seems to indicate a Breton origin for the genre, which the trouveres cultivated after her. But already at this period, in southern France, the troubadours had developed in the langue d'oczn analogous lyric form rather close to that of the lai, called the descort. Such similarities of form and idiom extended even to the kinds of verse texts devised by poets to adorn the liturgy of the medieval church.
The lai, the longest and freest of the medieval poetic forms, was often thought to be the most difficult of all. Eustache Deschamps (c1346-c1406) remarks in his Art de dictier that the lai is an 'extremely difficult form, both to write and to invent'. The absence of a refrain, a relatively uncon-straining framework for the versification, requires that the poet 'invent' the form as he goes along, just as he freely invents his poetic material. The form stabilized a little during the course of the fourteenth century: by this stage it consisted of twelve strophes with independent metrical structures (i.e. different rhythmic and rhyme schemes) with the sole exception of the last, which was modelled on the opening strophe. Each strophe is subdivided into two or four parts which are metrically identical and are sung to the same melody. The music of the first strophe is repeated in the last one, but generally transposed a fifth higher. Only Machaut's first lai, Loyauti point ne delay, is atypical in that it is perfectly regular in its strophic structure, both strophes being sung to the same melody.