3. Unintentional Variants

Sometimes, it is hard to determine whether a variant is intentional or accidental, or even whether it would have been acted upon or ironed out in performance. Such questions are especially relevant when the changes are minute, but nevertheless crucial to the reading.

The actual notes of the A-part of V16, for example, are not disputed. Still, MSS C, A and G have a dot after this song’s second note, which is missing in MSS Vg, B and E. Other parameters such as spacing and underlay may suggest that the intention of at least some of the latter sources was to follow the reading of the former group. Still, strict adherence to the notational conventions would cause this small detail to result in very different readings.

MS A:     Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

MS E:     Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

Interestingly, as the settings of the last two lines of text of this form-part incorporate both ‘long-short-long-short’ and ‘short-long-short-long’ rhythmic combinations, both readings of the song’s beginning can be naturally integrated into the rest of the work. Furthermore, the reading which is more likely to be erroneous (the one without the dot) offers better alignment between mensural strong-points and poetic stresses, as well as a more conventional starting point for line four of the text (b. 7, at the beginning of a brevis unit). While less likely to have been Machaut’s intention, a reader of this version would not have had any reason to suspect it was wrong. It is also worth remembering that while the odd historical occasion enabled two Machaut manuscripts to be found in the same library, these books were in all likelihood consulted independently and singularly, hence a reader would have been unlikely to have the opportunity to form an opinion as to their preferred version based on a variety of sources in the manner that we are today.

For a number of reasons, MS E is considered closer to actual musical practice than the other sources. This raises a number of interesting questions with regard to the reading of V16. It is possible that the scribe knew the intended musical result before noting this song down. In this case, the correct imperfection may have seemed so obvious that the appearance or otherwise of a dot would not have influenced this song’s reading. On the other hand, the tentative links of Vg and MS E to subsequent performance, combined with the likely intended use of MS B as an exemplar in the further circulation of Machaut’s work as written rather than heard artefacts, might together suggest the possibility of the incorrect version being performed more widely than the correct one.


Uri Smilansky