Guillaume de Machaut was born in Reims in northern France around 1300 AD and died in 1377. He was as admired as a poet as he was as a composer, something almost unique in music history. Perhaps you might compare him to Bob Dylan. Machaut was part of the late Medieval movement in music known as ars nova. His secular songs dealing with courtly love are highly regarded and he was the first composer to set the whole Catholic mass as a single composition. Machaut was one of the best-known composers of the isorhythmic motet in which a repeating rhythmic pattern, called the talea, is used independently of the melody, called the color. Using a repeated rhythmic pattern unifies the composition--something composers are always striving for. Here, for example, is the tenor part to the Kyrie of Machaut's mass:
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We tend to think of history as being progressive: one of the tenets of modernism in music was progress. The new music was a technical advance over the old music with greater complexity and, supposedly, interest. But looking at this music by Machaut we can see that this model of history is naive. A motet by Machaut is very complex rhythmically, far more so than the Renaissance compositions which followed it, far more so than the Baroque and Classical ones as well. If you want to know a whole lot more about Machaut, here is an excellent, very recent essay on a piece by Machaut by Elizabeth Leach, a musicologist at Oxford. Here is her blog.
I love music like this for a number of reasons: the harmonic clarity, the openness of the texture, the feeling of almost being able to get a sense of the inner lives of people living seven hundred years ago. Enjoy!