Fame comes knocking at the door

The first composer (and poet) to compile his own collected works, Guillaume de Machaut was a master of PR, as well as a prophet of the new. As his Messe de Notre Dame reaches the Proms, Bayan Northcott assesses the known facts

The scene is a typical 14th-century landscape in wonky perspective, with a windmill, duckpond, lots of sheep and rabbits. In the foreground, the tonsured figure of Guillaume de Machaut is seen rising from a settle before his doorway to receive an allegorical deputation: Nature herself has come to commission new love poems from him and to offer the assistance of three of her children - Sense, Rhetoric and Music.

Preserved in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale, this engaging miniature reminds us that, during his lifetime (from circa 1300 to 1377), Machaut was equally famed as a poet - from whom the young Chaucer, for one, was happy to learn. But then the Middle Ages hardly made the same distinctions between music and poetry that we do. Not only are Machaut's settings of his own lyric poems full of musical parallels to their elaborate verse forms, but several of his longer, narrative poems are interspersed with musical settings.

The most remarkable of these - at least from a modern perspective - is evidently a late narrative, including letters as well as verse and music, composed around 1363 (when Machaut was past 60) and entitled Le Voir Dit. For here he suddenly broke through the stylised conventions of the courtly love tradition to offer a touching episode from his own life. The work tells of his belated passion for a 19-year-old girl, Peronne d'Armentieres, who was more star-struck by his art than by his ageing person. Here Machaut not only divulges a number of autobiographical details, such as his smallness of physical stature, but comments upon the pieces he composes and sends to Peronne. "Seems to me very strange and very novel," he remarks of one effort; and of another, whether or not ironically, "The lower parts are as sweet as unsalted gruel."

Such personal details tend to reinforce a feeling it is difficult to resist once one begins to explore Machaut's output in any quantity: that it embodies a self-consciousness new in music. Granted, what we know of even the most significant of his predecessors tends to depend upon the chance survival of a few manuscripts and such biographical detail as can be winkled out of legal documents and the like. Not even the powerful early 14th-century composer-politician, Philippe de Vitry, whose Ars Nova innovations in large-scale rhythmic organisation made Machaut's works possible and constituted a major step in the evolution of Western music, survives in more than a handful of motets.Yet that is precisely the point: for arguably, Machaut's most prophetically "modern" trait of all was what can only be called a nascent sense of PR.

Towards the end of his life he appears to have gathered all his works together, carefully arranged them by genre and had them copied onto a series of luxurious illuminated manuscripts which he proceeded to send round some of the most important centres of patronage in Europe - where they continued to influence composers for decades after his death. As a result, his output is not only by far the largest to survive of any Medieval composer, but one which seems to prefigure the altogether later concept of a complete, consciously planned musical oeuvre.

Its most imposing item, and the work that has become best known since Machaut began to be transcribed and edited between the wars, is the so- called Messe de Notre Dame, which the Hilliard Ensemble will be bringing to the Proms on Monday week. About the earliest complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass by a single composer, this 25-minute sequence seems to be constructed according to a conspicuously bi-stylistic plan. The opening Kyrie and concluding succession of Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Ite Missa Est are written in paragraphs of sustained counterpoint, replete with those hiccuping syncopations of one line bouncing off another, known as hockets.

The intervening Gloria and Credo, however, get through their lengthier texts mostly in a syllabic, chordal manner which, to modern ears, sounds far more severe and archaic - though whether Machaut's contemporaries would have heard this contrast in the same way is difficult to know. That is, those who heard the Messe at all... For while it used to be thought it was composed for the coronation of Charles V in Rheims in 1364, scholars such as Daniel Leech-Wilkinson in his penetrating monograph on the work (OUP, 1990) now think it was more likely intended for annual performance in Machaut's own memory - another instance of his concern with posterity?

In fact, a few other pieces aside, the vast bulk of Machaut's output was secular. And if one ignores the endless scholarly dispute as to whether certain lines in the polyphonic settings were intended for voices, instruments, or both - thanks largely to the researches and recordings of Christopher Page, the purely vocal approach is currently on top - only one of his 143 works, the so-called Hoquetus David, seems to have been intended for instruments alone. But within these parameters, the reach and range of styles and techniques Machaut encompassed was synoptic.

In most of his 19 Lais, for instance, he was apparently concerned to bring a tradition of long, many-sectioned monophonic melodies, running back to the trouveres, to its culmination; but in a few cases, he also went on to compose the only known polyphonic Lais. So, in his Lai de la Fonteinne, the monophonic verses alternate with a series of three-part rounds of an exquisite, airborne finesse - the entire sequence lasting well over 20 minutes. Again, while some of Machaut's earlier Virelais have an almost folksong-like directness, he also ran to such contrapuntal feats as the three-voice Ballade on the words "Ma fin est mon commencement / et mon commencement me fin," in which the bottom part is indeed a retrograde of the top melody and the middle part goes into reverse halfway through.

Thanks to our scholarly performing groups and the advent of CD - that modern analogy to the Medieval codex - something approaching a quarter of Machaut's output is now easily available. But perhaps no early master more urgently deserves complete recording, not only because he apparently came to regard his work as a balanced whole, but for the uncanny way his music can sometimes seem to connect with the remote future.

To modern ears, the opening of the Sanctus in the Messe de Notre Dame sounds like a straight progression from tonic to dominant of a lydian- inflected F major. Three-quarters of the way through the Hoquetus David, the music marks time as if in anticipation of a recapitulation and the work's highest note is duly reserved for the final, climactic phrase. And if a multi-layered motet such as Inviolata genitrix, with its galloping top parts and slower-moving lower lines, were scored up for modern orchestra, it might sound surprisingly like a paragraph from some Sibelius tone-poem. Even admitting that we can never entirely rid our ears of more recent music, such comparisons are, of course, ridiculous. Machaut can have foreseen nothing of the later concepts of tonality or of dynamic forms such as sonata. As for Sibelius! And yet, and yet...

There is another Machaut miniature in the Bibliotheque Nationale - presumably he was responsible for commissioning these, too. Here he is in his study, looking older and more bent, yet with recognisably the same features. But this time, the figures trooping to his door comprise Doux Penser, Plaisance and Esperance. And their presenter is not Nature, but the winged figure of Love.

n Machaut at the Proms: 7.30 pm, Monday 11 September, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) and live on Radio 3

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future