5. Special Cases

Machaut’s oeuvre contains many special forms of signification, only a few of which can be mentioned here. One signification issue involves the question of the strictness of application of notational rules in different areas and different times in his output. This issue is discussed elsewhere, but it may be noteworthy that many of the Virelais found in the early MS C often require common sense to prevail over perfection rules, while some of the Lais which appear first in Vg call for a strict application of the rules, resulting in long chains of syncopations. Still, the distribution of notational habits is by no means chronologically linear and other effects help to paint a different picture:

  • The technical device of coloration is used sparingly throughout Machaut’s works. In the songs, for example, it is found only in the early B4, presented in full in a different discussion. Interestingly, this song uses the resulting hemiolia effect rather liberally, matching it with ambiguous mensural groupings in the upper voice which can be read as either a weak 3/4 progression or a shift to 2/4, but arranged in syncopation relatively to the coloured tenor.
  • All cases of notated mensural changes in Machaut’s songs (excluding the version of B4 discussed above in MS E) appear in Lais  which are also already present in the early MS C.

This should warn us against a simplified view of such special usages being a late characteristic of a developed notational style following the gaining of experience.

A last example is also taken from an early work. L8/12 is notated on the Modus level (perfect Modus), with the quickest rhythmic value to appear being the semibrevis (not counting a couple of unhelpful additions in MS B in exactly some of the instances detailed below). While occasional groups of two semibreves are underlaid separately (mostly sharing the same pitch), most semibreves appear within ligatures as ornamented brevis-progressions. Still, on ten separate locations an unusual grouping of semibreves appears in one of two sign-combinations (taken from MS C):


The first arrangement often has a longa at its end instead of the brevis followed by a rest. The underlay pattern observable here is reproduced in all repetitions of both combinations (in the second variant, it is clear the last syllable should appear under the last note). Counting written out repetitions but not indicated ones, the first version occurs twice in strophe II (with a longa) and four times in strophe III (with a brevis and longa rest). The second variant appears twice in strophe I and twice in the musical repetition of strophe XII. Ten written iterations of a melodic gesture (or twenty heard ones) are still a minor effect in the context of the long Lai, but are nevertheless numerous enough to make them impossible to ignore. The consistent placing of the group of three separate semibreves in the weak midpoint of the Modus grouping and their incorporation into a melisma both suggest an ornamental character for this gesture. A number of notational solutions are available for these figures, depending on the approach of the reader and the traditions to which they link the style.

A more structural approach would suggest finding a mensural combination is which such a figure makes sense. For this, a perfect Tempus has to be adopted, at least for these strophes, if not for the work as a whole.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

While providing an interpretational context for the groups of three semibreves, this approach comes with its own set of problems. First, even its application only within the four strophes affected can be regarded as a disproportionately large effect standing in the way of the flow of all the other instances of semibreves grouped only in couples. One can circumvent this and apply the change only to the bars in question as a localized and short-lived shift:     Score

A notational problem still remains: If we imagine a shift in mensuration, we would expect the section involved to follow the perfection rules which apply in the new constellation, especially if the change is only for a short section. While the first version of this phenomenon when a brevis appears at its end can be easily read with an augmentation at the end of the group of semibreves, the second version (or the first with a longa last note) cannot, as augmentation has to occur in the middle of a line of semibreves and at the end of a group of 7 semibreves before a longa. Three different perfection rules are broken within this one bar. Still, this reading is visually easy to arrive at, following the ligature groupings. While such an approach can be found in the earlier Motet tradition, the reading of ligature groups as self-contained units marking perfection-points is more characteristic of the Italian notational tradition of the 14th century than the French one.

A more practical alternative would be to take the easiest way of reading the entire song as the rule (i.e., reading the tempus as imperfect), and apply some kind of exception for the groups of three. This exception can take many forms, and result in a shift of brevis-division or the un-notated introduction of a new rhythmic layer. The first option again has some support in the earlier Motet repertory, but even there it is hard to ascertain how common it was in practice. It manifests itself in triplets in the edition of these groupings, and are, therefore, more akin to an acceleration of the ornamental figures than the introduction of a new set of rhythms.

Sound and Score

It is perhaps noteworthy that only twenty years after the completion of MS C the Berkeley theorist suggested that not only 3:2 proportional relationships but also 4:3 divisions are everyday and unproblematic occurrences in practice, and are taken for granted by trained Parisian musicians.

An un-notated shift of rhythmic level can itself be governed by different guidelines. A more Italianate procedure would be to place the short notes at the beginning of the group:     Score

Perhaps a more appropriate approach would be to follow the notational principle ascribed to Philippe de Vitry, which calls for a group of three semibreves without stems to be interpreted as having decreasing durations:     Score

After all, Vitry was only a few years older than Machaut and one of the most celebrated musicians of the age. It is entirely possible the two met, especially if we believe Machaut studied in Paris, but even without the personal link, it would be surprising for Machaut not to have heard of the new musical theories and practices emanating from the circle of this well connected and famous master.

Both the above versions maintain the basic division of the brevis into two which seem to characterise the rest of the song. The former gives the impression of an ornamented brevis, while the latter sounds more like an ornamented group of two semibreves descending in stepwise motion – the most common melodic arrangement of such notes in this piece.

The choice of which solution to follow has also a practical side to it. As each one has a different duration for the quickest notes to be used, the speed in which the song is performed can affect the viability of adopting each different readings. A very quick performance may tend towards the ‘triplet’ solution, as the difference between slow and quick notes is relatively small and the transition can be rather smooth. A slow performance, on the other hand, could make the proportional aspect of this solution sound too composed and artificial. In order to retain the ornamental feel for these groupings, the Vitry-type reading may be to most practical as it incorporates the quickest relative note-durations of all the examples provided. The recordings presented here demonstrate that when performed as ornaments of limited local importance, the exact division and interpretation can become a rather academic (even if an important one) issue.


Uri Smilansky