Saturday, January 28, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Guillaume de Machaut

It has been pointed out by philosopher of music Peter Kivy that musical masterpieces seem to have a different status than artworks in other fields. Some knowledge of the plays of Shakespeare, the sculptures and paintings of Michelangelo, the novels of Tolstoy and the poetry of Dante and Homer is assumed for every well-educated person. On hearing Hamlet's soliloquy "to be or not to be" or seeing a reproduction of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and even perhaps hearing the words "In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost" many people would recognize the reference. But the same seems not to be true of music. Most people would probably not recognize the opening of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 or Bach's B minor Mass or Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. Without trying to identify exactly why this is the case, why music seems to be regarded as being more mysterious, on a different level, than other artworks (perhaps it is because music is written down in a notation that relatively few learn to read), I would like to try and offer introductions to some masterpieces of music. Twenty or thirty years ago people were saying that there were no more masterpieces. I don't think that is true, but what I am sure about is that there have been a great number of musical masterpieces, easily powerful enough to stand beside Hamlet or Michaelangelo's David or Tolstoy's War and Peace. Looking around on the web, if you search for "masterpieces of classical music" you end up with a list that includes Carmina Burana, the Four Seasons and Claire de lune. I don't really want to talk about the current "top ten" of classical music. I would rather go back and pick out one or two great composers from each period and talk a little about one or two of their best compositions. So let me start with perhaps the greatest Medieval composer, Guillaume de Machaut.

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:
Click to enlarge
As you can see there is a brief, four note rhythmic pattern that keeps repeating even though the pitches are always changing. This unusual to our ears way of unifying a piece was re-discovered in the 20th century by the Second Viennese School. Here is the secular motet Quant en moy which uses a more complex isorhythm:

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!


Laura said...
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Laura said...

Dear Mr. Townsend,

My sincere congratulations for the effort you make writing this fantastic blog.

Greetings from Spain,


Bryn Gerard said...

Thank you for giving us such an edifying piece of work. Your love of the subject is their for all to see.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you Laura and Bryn! It is very gratifying for me hear that others are enjoying this blog. One of the happiest years of my life was spent studying music in Alicante, Spain, when I was much younger.