His poetry was admired by Geoffrey Chaucer, he survived the Black Death, and he wrote the most-recorded Mass of the 14th century. That’s a decent thumbnail bio of the multi-talented Guillaume de Machaut. Add that he lived in Rheims, France, when he wasn’t traveling with one of his noble patrons. Oh, and he invented new ways to write counterpoint for voices.
History has a wry sense of humor. During Machaut’s life, he was quite famous for his secular songs and poems. Today, his only surviving Mass -- a work that was only performed once, if at all, when it was new -- is now described in every college music history book, yet his songs have become a footnote. Happily, there are recent new recordings of both parts of his output.
Messe de Notre Dame
The first thing to understand about the Messe de Notre Dame (often spelled Nostre Dame) is that it has nothing to do with that famous cathedral in Paris. Machaut wrote this Mass in about 1360 for the Rheims Cathedral. The Mass got its name because the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, AKA “Our Lady” (Notre Dame).
Machaut’s Mass is important to music history as the earliest known polyphonic setting of the complete Ordinary (those texts sung at every Mass service). Although there’s no record of the details, Machaut’s Mass would have been performed with Propers (texts that change daily with the liturgical calendar) inserted between the Ordinary movements, either as Gregorian chant, or in settings by other composers.
That’s what the ensemble Diabolus in Musica, directed by Antoine Guerber, put together on their Alpha Records album. As you can hear in Machaut’s Agnus Dei, the all-male ensemble has taken a meditative approach in terms of tempo, tuning, and articulation. The sound is smooth and without texture, the aural equivalent of a matte black surface so intensely dark that you can’t see the shape of what you’re looking at.
Contrast that with another new recording, by the Vienna Vocal Consort on Klanglogo Records. For one thing, there are women in the mix (almost certainly not the case in Machaut’s day). But the articulation and phrasing make the substantive difference. Here’s that same movement, the Agnus Dei, available on Spotify. The music has shape and motion, not to mention the sense that they’re singing words with meaning rather than just painting a backdrop of sound.
Rather than interrupting the Mass Ordinary with other works, the Vienna Vocal Consort puts Machaut’s six movements back to back, then follows them with works by other 14th-century composers, including Pierre de la Rue and Guillaume DuFay.
There’s a completely different approach to that issue on Azahar (Alpha Records), performed by the ensemble La Tempête under the direction of Simon-Pierre Bestion. They went for old-meets-new programming: Mixed in among the movements of Machaut’s Mass are those from Stravinsky’s Mass (featuring sopranos Anna Reinhold and Clair Lafilliâtre). Plus there are Spanish some sacred songs (cantigas) by 20th-century composer Maurice Ohana and medieval cantigas by the 13th-century Spanish king Alfonso X.
As for the Machaut, the group is clearly influenced by the chant-performance sound established by Marcel Pérès and his Ensemble Organum in the 1980s and ’90s, which draws from the ancient traditions of microtonal ornamentation and vocal placement of Greece, Israel, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. It’s not as “pretty” as the other recordings discussed here, but the closer you listen, the more you’ll be rewarded.
Here’s the Kyrie. The source of the unusual groaning sonority in the lowest register is not identified in the liner notes, but it sounds like a bass viol or vielle or other medieval bowed instrument.
As a skilled poet, Machaut never lacked for words to set to music. And it was for his non-religious songs, arranged for two or three voices, that the composer became quite famous throughout 14th-century France.
The Hyperion label has just completed a six-part project that features the Orlando Consort singing this repertoire. Started in 2012, the series discs are as follows:
Songs from Le Voir Dit
The Dart of Love
A Burning Heart
The Gentle Physician
The most recent is The Gentle Physician. The only examples available without paying to stream are a set of samples put out by Hyperion, but it will do for illustration.
The clip starts with a setting of the song “De Fortuna,” which is a great introduction to Machaut’s distinctive three-voice sound. The Orlando Consort, with decades of experience with this material, knows how to emphasize the dissonances and passing of notes from one singer to another (hocket) while keeping the motion fluid and natural. At 0:36 there’s “Quant ma dame,” a more obvious demonstration of hocket, plus Machaut’s characteristic syncopation. “Dame, comment qu’amez,” starting at 1:10, is a wistful number of two voices of very different ranges. Machaut’s masterful, complex polyphony is on display at 1:59 in a 4-voice setting of the same “De Fortuna” that started the clip.
The album Ars Nova – New Music (Neos) explores Machaut and his contemporary, Philippe de Vitry, as innovators. Alongside their works are pieces by the living German composer Wolfgang Schweinitz, whose music is heavily influenced by late medieval compositional and tuning methods. These new arrangements of Machaut and de Vitry focus on intonation.
The duo is Helge Slaatto on violin and Frank Reinecke on bass. Their playing is designed, as the program notes put it, to “show how closely the power of this music was connected to the common intonation system of the time, based on pure perfect fifths, which lead to highly tense thirds.”
Here is Machaut’s two-voice ballade “Riches d’amour et mendians d’amie” (Rich in love and begging for a lover), arranged for two bowed string instruments that can phrase like singers. The mournfulness and longing of the sound come not only from the slow tempo, but also the tuning mentioned above, with pitches pushing against each other to cause acoustic tension that’s lost in modern intonation:
Speaking of surprising arrangements, a Machaut song got a very unusual treatment on the new album Whispered Wishes (Prova Records). In addition to Michel Bisceglia on piano--an instrument that did not exist in Machaut’s time—Didier François plays a rather astonishing stringed creation called a viola d’amore a chiavi, better known as a nyckelharpa and related in construction to a hurdy gurdy. And to make the arrangement more distinctive, percussionist Trilok Gurtu joins on the pot-shaped Nigerian udu drum. Eventually an Indian-sounding female voice comes in as well.
I expected to despise hearing a modern piano in this repertoire, but Bisceglia’s contribution is so subtle that it provides only the gentlest support of the other instruments. Here’s “Dame, ne regardes pas,” turning Machaut into an amalgam of musical sounds that only the 21st century could produce. And maybe experiments like this are how he’ll live on for another few centuries: