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
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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