Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) was the greatest French composer of his century, the creator of the first complete polyphonic Mass setting, and a renowned poet.
Guillaume de Machaut was born in the village of Machault in Champagne, near Reims. He became a cleric, and in 1323 he joined the household of King John of Bohemia as a secretary. John was the son of one German emperor and the father of another; his ancestral castle was Luxembourg. He was also the brother-in-law of one French king and later became the father-in-law of another, and his closest associations were with the French court. One of the most traveled noblemen of Europe and involved in numerous military campaigns, John took his secretary with him to Bohemia, Prussia, Poland, Lithuania, and Italy.
Later John settled Machaut at Reims with a canonicate. There Machaut lived from about 1340 on, quietly and peacefully, except for frequent trips to Paris and hunting expeditions; he was joined by his brother in 1355 and by his student, the poet Eustache Deschamps, who may have been his nephew. Machaut always kept in close touch with the royal family, and his last patron was Jean de France, Duke of Berry, the grandson of King John and brother of King Charles V of France. The Duke of Berry was one of the greatest art patrons of all time. The most beautiful of the five manuscripts that contain all Machaut's works was written for the duke under Machaut's personal supervision. Because of this "complete edition," Machaut's output reaches us fully and is the most voluminous of any composer before the 15th century.
In 1374 Machaut's brother died, and in April 1377 Guillaume followed him. Two poems written by Deschamps in May commemorate his death; shortly thereafter they were set to music by a composer of the younger generation, Andrieu, and they constitute the earliest such "complaint" about a poet or composer.
In his poetry and in his life Machaut shows himself conscious of his lowly origin but also of his worth. He is dignified, but he can be rollicking and rustic; he is realistic and honest rather than formal. Machaut describes nature as he saw it, responds to the events of his day as a poet-historian, and gives a very honest account of his last love affair, that with Peronne, a girl of 18 or 20, with whom he fell in love during his early 60s; elsewhere he records the names of some eight other girls he had loved. But the majority of his poetry deals with love in the manner of the trouvères, whose style he sought to revive. In fact, he was the last composer outside of Germany to write monophonic songs like those of the trouvères.
Machaut's works can be divided into four categories. The first consists of larger poetic works: seven historical poems (dits); Le Remède de fortune, in part a textbook of poetry; Le Veoir dit (1362-1365), the story of his last love; La Prise d'Alexandrie (ca. 1370), chronicling the sack of Alexandria by the king of Cyprus in 1365; and seven others. Several of these works contain poems set to music. The second group comprises his shorter poems: La Louange des dames, some 270 poems in praise of women; and about 50 complaints and other poems. The third category includes poems set to his own music: 19 lais; 23 motets, with 2 texts each; and 101 pieces in the standard forms of the period (formes fixes) —ballade, virelai, and rondeau. The fourth group consists of two large musical works: the hocket David and a Mass. Many of these works reappear in manuscripts other than the five of his "complete edition," proving the composer's widespread fame. They are all available in modern editions.
Machaut's musical technique represents the ars nova, or new music, of the 14th century, championed by Philippe de Vitry in the preceding generation. It employs duple meter alongside the previously explored triple meter; the triad; isorhythm, that is, a lengthy rhythmic pattern applied to changing melodic phrases; and complex, often syncopated rhythm. Machaut also seems to have introduced such artifices as reading a melody backward; and his accompanied songs—a melody accompanied by two instruments—are the first of the genre to reach us, since those of Philippe de Vitry are lost.
In his Remède de fortune, Machaut teaches several form types, among them the lai, the complaint, the chanson royale, and the formes fixes. His lais are in 12 stanzas, each subdivided into two or four pairs of lines, sung to the same melody; all line pairs differ in length and rhythm, and therefore melodically, except that the last stanza is sung to the music of the first one. Of Machaut's 25 lais 19 are set to music, monophonically (for one unaccompanied voice only), but in two of them monophonic stanzas alternate with canonic ones (of the type of the modern round, then called a chace).
The complaint is a poem of many (30-50) stanzas of 4X4 lines each. When sung—only one of some 15 by Machaut is set to music (monophonically)—all stanzas are sung to the same music, each stanza falling into two repeated sections.
The chanson royale is a poem of 5 stanzas of 8-11 lines and a refrain of 3-4 lines. Only one of Machaut's eight chansons royales is set to music (monophonically).
Ballade, virelai, and rondeau are related forms, all derived from the dance, though only some rondeaux were still connected with dancing at the time. All involve a refrain which is repeated in all stanzas and may comprise 6-20 lines or more. Most of these poems are set to music: 20 of the 21 rondeaux, each for one sung part and one to three instrumental parts; 32 of 38 virelais, most of them monophonically, but some for voice plus one or two instruments; and 42 ballades, mostly for voice and one or two instruments.
To these types must be added the motet, the hocket, and the Mass. The motet, created shortly before 1200 as a liturgical work, soon became the chief type of serious secular art music. Machaut's motets are among the most artful of the century. Whereas isorhythm appears infrequently in the ballades and rondeaux and not at all in the other form types described above, it is ubiquitous in the motets. They are all written for two sung parts—sung to different texts, two, indeed, to one French and one Latin text simultaneously—and either one or two instrumental parts. The majority are secular, but some are liturgical.
The hocket David is one of the last works, and the longest, of a type created during the 13th century. In a hocket two parts alternately give out snatches of a melody, here above an isorhythmic cantus firmus (preexisting melody).
Machaut's Mass is probably the outstanding musical work of the entire 14th century. It is a polyphonic setting of the entire Mass Ordinary (the portions sung at every Mass except at the Requiem Mass, the Mass for the Dead), consisting of six sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est (the last section is rarely set by other composers). Only one such complete setting, the Mass of Tournai (ca. 1300), compiled from various composers, antedates Machaut's, and it is artistically not comparable. Machaut's Mass may have been composed for the Marian Feasts at a chapel served by the Machaut brothers in the 1350s (but it was not, as is often said, written for or sung at the coronation of King Charles V in 1364). The long texts of the Gloria and Credo are set simply in chordal style, each followed by an elaborate Amen. All the other sections are composed in the style of the isorhythmic motet. Almost the entire work is written in four melodic lines, for voices and instruments, and all the sections are unified by a pervasive motif, a technique not employed before or within the following 60 years or so.
There was no one in France during the second half of the 14th century and the first quarter of the 15th to even remotely approach Machaut's musical eminence. In fact, all composers followed his lead and adopted his style, developing it only with respect to an increasingly mannered complexity, which parallels the late Gothic, or mannered, style of architecture prevailing during the period.
Further Reading on Guillaume de Machaut
The fullest account in English of Machaut's life is in Siegmund Levarie, Guillaume de Machaut (1954), and of his works in Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960). All of Machaut's music is available in modern transcriptions and much of it on records.