Review Summary: Part V: A swan song for the Middle Ages
As mentioned in Part III, the music of Léonin and Pérotin contain the earliest-known examples of French polyphony, pieces that must have been groundbreaking at the time of their composition. By the time of the fourteenth century, however, a new sect of composers was growing prominent in the land, ones that took just as many cues from secular music (like those of the troubadours and trouveres) as they did from the sacred traditions. This music was, in a sense, indulgent: complex for the sake of it, allowing the writers freedom to stretch the limits of traditional polyphonic composition. The movement was immortalized by a pair of contemporary treatises as the ars nova
("new art"), and its advocates were met with some fierce resistance from composers of the old style (later named the ars antiqua
), who derided it for its clustered harmonies and strange rhythms, which often switched between triple and duple meters and used a form of repeated rhythmic motive called an "isorhythm".
The most famous composer of the ars nova
movement, Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 - April 1377) has retained significant notoriety just as much from his conscious attempt to preserve his own legacy as from his compositional prowess. A lifelong resident in and around the area of Reims in northern France, Machaut benefitted from a comfortable living situation and stable employment, serving for over 20 years in the court of King John of Bohemia. In his later years, Machaut arranged his works into several collections, accompanying them with an autobiographical "Prologue" that scholars have disputed the historical accuracy of for years. But while the information on Machaut as a person is extremely scant, what's evident is that he possessed some renown by the time of his death, becoming the first composer known to have been memorialized in musical form by another composer.
Machaut's musical approach seems to be a direct descendant of the trouveres, as nearly all of his musical output deals with the fin amors
theme and his geographical location makes him very likely to have been exposed to their music. His poetry gained attention on its own merits, making its way to, among others, the eyes of young Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer, whose formative works are said to have borrowed substantially from Machaut. Despite the confluence of poetry and musicianship in his oeuvre, however, Machaut very intentionally separated his writing into musical and non-musical categories, the latter referred to as "dits".
The lack of surviving contemporary works makes it difficult to evaluate Machaut's individuality as a composer, but certainly some conclusions can be drawn regarding the era in which he lived. The main one is that it is in this period when the wordsmithery of the trouveres firmly mixed together with the "high art", as it were, of polyphony. If Adam de la Halle's motets hinted at this change, Machaut's motets embrace it fully, with the colorful words of his poetry snugly fitting amidst the two, three and even four-part harmonies written to accompany them. Machaut the scribe shines equally as brightly as Machaut the musician in these secular works, as shown in this excerpt from Remede de Fortune
"He laughs in the morning, who in the evening weeps. And he believes that Love labors for his benefit when she surely jabs him and twists the knife; and he believes that Joy hurries to help him when she remains behind; because Fortune devours all this when she turns - she does not wait at all for day to come before she turns; she does not rest, but turns, turns again, and inverts it so much that she puts to the top he who lies checkmated in the gutter; the uppermost one she returns to the bottom, and makes the most joyful checkmated and dejected in a small part of an hour.
Machaut's other major work of note is his polyphonic setting of the Mass ordinary, likely one of the earliest ever to be completed by one composer and certainly the oldest one that has survived in its entirety. The Messe de Nostre Dame
, as it was known, likely dates from later in Machaut's lifetime, and while it is an odd duck for Machaut - one of the only works for which he is not responsible for the text - it stands out as perhaps his most important achievement historically as a composer. Written for four voices, the piece takes the traditional Latin chant and transforms it into something quite unlike anything monophonic settings had ever produced -- voices flit up and downward in patterns unique to each part, examples of "architectonics" as some writers have put it. The piece is easily one of the most rhythmically complex things ever notated at this point, with constant changing between triple and duple meters throughout and heavily syncopated rhythms in the higher register parts (triplum and quadruplum) especially. An interesting feature that Machaut makes use of is a relationship between two specific notes, D and F, that act as pitch centers (known at the time as "finals", since they were the notes on which the piece ended) for the first three and last three movements of the piece, respectively. Despite the emphasis of octaves and perfect fifths during these resolutions, it certainly suggests a minor-major relationship in a form very similar to what present-day Western music acknowledges.
Whether appropriate to his standing amongst his peers or not, the legacy of Machaut looms large over the waning days of the Medieval period, and it certainly is fair to wonder if labelling him as a "medieval composer" is a disservice to the significance of his contributions and the very forward-thinking direction of the ars nova
. If his role is as a bridge between monophony and the Renaissance-era attitude towards polyphony, it's a bridge quite close to the Renaissance side indeed - that of a Renaissance man born a couple of generations too early.
Oxford Camerata (1996): https://open.spotify.com/album/2EykDNSrFg35Qv7ZtAGFLw?si=btM4cqaeR0ulQlO8h0BYGQ&a mp;dl_branch=1