i. Reading a Source, Reading an Oeuvre

When thinking about Machaut’s output as a unified oeuvre, a few issues should be kept in mind. We know, for example, that many sources have been lost through the ages, raising the possibility that we are missing important information, or have formed a misleading view of what is standard and what is unique in the transmission and circulation of Machaut related materials. It is also obvious that medieval readers would not have had the kind of immediate access to a plethora of manuscripts that is only newly available to us today due to the digitalisation and online presentation of a growing number of sources and codicological literature. While interested and well connected individuals with trained memories may have had the opportunity to consult a handful of different readings, there would often be no way of validating the precision of a given version, or assigning greater authority to one reading than to another. Aspects of this issue were already explored in relationship with variants and mistakes, and the following example can be fitted also into that context, especially as it draws upon a piece already discussed there. It is brought here as the differences shown are not the result of a single mistake but arises from a collection of small, acceptable and individually manageable changes. Furthermore, no source gives a clear and easy to follow version, making it hard to imagine what a medieval reader would have considered as the best option even if a comparison was possible.

Different interpretations of the rhythm of the A-part of V16 are discussed elsewhere. Its B-part has no rhythmic variation between the different sources. The differences that do occur appear in the underlay of this section and its clos cadence. In the comparison that follows, I tried aligning the underlay as closely as makes sense to the source. At times this is rather unclear, at which point I add ‘?’ to the syllables in question. Line breaks have been marked with a dashed line, and the pause signalling the end of the ouvert by a full bar-line.

Score          Facsimile:

MS C     ¦     MS A     ¦     MS G     ¦     Vg     ¦     MS B     ¦     MS E

These two parameters come together to muddy the structural relationship between the ouvert and clos. The versions of the clos section in MSS Vg, B and E are copied a third above those of MSS A and G. Third-transpositions are not uncommon, and usually result from a mistaken placement of a clef. MS C, though, complicates matters further, as it has the clos melisma in the low version, but places the cadence note on F rather than D, thus agreeing with the high version. While a bit more surprising, an F cadence is still acceptable in a D piece. In this particular case, it fits better with the higher range of this form-part, which is framed by a single f an octave above this cadence note close to its beginning. Before considering this section further, and excursion into some aspects of text underlay is necessary.

While the technique of copying first the text and then aligning the music above it was argued to allow for a greater accuracy in the text music alignment of fourteenth century music in comparison with later styles where the reverse took place, second text underlay is notoriously imprecise. The single leaf fragment of L3 contained in La134 is a good example. This is perhaps the earliest surviving copy of any of Machaut’s music, leading to the expectation it would have emanated from the composer, or at least be relatively close to either his original materials or a heard performance. Its second text underlay, though, is so bad it would have been easier to have it copied in prose after each strophe. It is regularly misaligned with the first text (and therefore, the music) over line breaks, and even across the single extant page turn. While the odd case of such behaviour occurs also in the complete Machaut collections, the underlay is generally better, and there are also a number of instances where differences between the arrangements of the first and second texts seem intentional. Such a case can be found in B34, where the version in MS A indicates the first melisma of the ‘Ne quier’ voice should isolate ‘d’Absalon’ for the first time round, and ‘Sanson’ at the repetition.

Score     ¦     Facsimile

The direct paralleling between the two figures seemed to have overruled the fact that one requires more syllables than the other.

Returning to the case of V16, the location of the ouvert is clearly marked in all sources and is underlaid logically, but no prompt is given as to where the clos ending should begin. This forces the reader to rely on the placement of the second text as the only, even if unreliable clue. As the comparison given shows, the discrepancies in second text placing begin already with ‘souffrir’ at the end of the third brevis unit of this form-part. MSS Vg and B are alone in paralleling the two text-lines. MSS A, G and E shift the second text to the next underlay position a couple of notes forward, and MS C pushes it yet another position forwards to coincide with the beginning of a new lyric line in the first text. The implication of this is that all sources apart from Vg assign a second text syllable also to the ouvert cadence note, suggesting it should be sung also on the repetition. While not impossible, this is a rather less common procedure in Machaut’s output (in the Virelais, it can be found also in V27/30 and V31/37). Furthermore, even if this was the intended reading, it is still badly notated. The other works that use this musical effect repeat the note that functioned as the ouvert cadence also at the beginning of the clos, thus making the duplication clear. Alternatively, collections like the Turin J.II.9 (the Cypriot Codex), where nearly all songs use this effect, writes the melody through, but with a fermata-like sign above the staff to indicate the first ending, thus avoiding the use of a stroke (which could be interpreted also as a rest). Reading this section in this way creates an octave leap between what was the ouvert note and the repetition of the clos if the high version of the clos is adopted, and a minor sixth leap if the lower version is taken. While both are usable, the former is perhaps more satisfactory than the latter. On top of the relative likelihood of the interval itself, the octave version also echoes the leap linking the ouvert with the second iteration of the B-part. It is easy to adapt the version of MS E into such a reading.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

This version pleasingly emphasizes ‘Diex’ on the repeated ouver cadence note. On the other hand, Vg is often the most careful source in terms of the alignment of text and music, suggesting its version should perhaps be privileged. It is not entirely clear in this case whether the copying route Vg to B to E is applicable in this case or not. While the three share some important variants, MS E avoids some variants unique to Vg and B, suggesting either self-correction or a more complicated derivation for the exemplar of this work. If the direct relationship was maintained, it was perhaps easier for the modern reader (if not the medieval one) to opt for the version of an ‘original’ rather than a ‘copy’. In any event, ‘correcting’ the second text underlay following the first text would be rather straightforward when reading from any of these sources.

Vg’s arrangement would suggest leaving out the ouvert cadence note in the repetition. Such a procedure is more common in Machaut’s Virelais, even though he usually maintains some kind of rhythmic or melodic parity between the two endings, which is absent here. Furthermore, using this reading with the clos melisma given in Vg results in a major seventh leap, which is not entirely satisfactory. This structure seems to fit better the low version of the clos, as can be heard in the following example, adjusted from MS A.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

The replacement is surprising enough even when the leap is of a fifth. The problematic character of this passage can be seen in the way it has been treated by previous editors, both having adopted the low reading of the clos.


To me, this solution seems a bit over interventionist. Underlay seemed to have been decided upon following beginnings of Tempus groups and tone-repetitions, with little regard to the placing of the text in the sources. Now that original underlay has been dismissed as unreliable, no medieval indication of the length of the ouvert and the point at which one should jump to the clos remains, forcing the editor to look for some other basis for a decision. Looking at their editions, I surmise both Ludwig and Schrade opted for melodic logic in their solution, as the jump occurs at the latest point where the transition to the beginning of the clos can be understood as a standard medieval progression. Replacing the last two bars of the ouvert allows for the shift to happen in a cadence-like progression leading to the beginning of the clos. Under the same circumstances, it would have been equally justifiable to follow some other parameter. Privileging a structural symmetry, for example, would have perhaps suggested jumping even earlier, after the long ‘A’ of the fourth bar of the form-part. This would have allowed for the two endings to be of equal length and for the rhythm of the text declamation to be preserved between them.  

To sum up, even though differences can be within the expected range of scribal habits, they can cause important changes in the realisation of some works. As there is no indication that a mistake has occurred, there would have been no reason for a medieval reader to suspect something is amiss. Each version could have been taken as correct and authoritative, or at the very least, provide enough information for adjustments to be made leading to a usable version (not all of which are presented here). That even our ability to compare a considerable number of different sources does not allow us to reconstruct an original ‘best’ reading highlights the different procedures undertaken by modern and medieval readers. The more likely medieval procedure using one available source and making sense of its version as best we can seems to me more pleasing in such a case, and brings us closer to the problems encountered by the original users of these materials, as well as to the necessity to keep a flexible attitude towards their content.

Potential changes in both form-parts of V16 can result in wildly different informed and reliable performances depending on the source followed. There is every reason to believe this already happened in the Middle Ages, as the combination of the circulation of less authoritative materials and the need to constantly adapt works to changing contexts and performing forces would have pushed the limits of acceptability of readings. One can easily imagine Machaut oeuvre taking on different shapes and realisations according to place, time and performing tradition. This can even be seen in the modern performance tradition of his music, making the illusion of a reproducible single edifice suggested by the modern complete-works edition to be taken with many important caveats.


Uri Smilansky


***********************STOP PRESS!!!!!!!!************************

The Complete Poetry and Music of Guillaume de Machaut Volume 1 is out now!!!!

Volume 1: The Debate Poems is now available in print.

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Edited and translated by R. Barton Palmer, with art historical commentary by Domenic Leo, and musical commentary by Uri Smilansky, the volume contains  Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaigne, Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, and Le Lay de Plour.




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