ii. Notation and Exactness

The issue of notational exactness in medieval music is fraught with difficulty. On the one hand, the various notational systems of the fourteenth century were designed to be able to convey ever more complex rhythm is a precise manner. On the other hand, though, there is usage. Usage was always rather patchy, and depended on locality, intended readership and personal knowledge and ability. Furthermore, most notated sources were created to convey meaning rather than conform to any set of rules. As long as the content was understood by the intended users, even common and well established rules did not matter. Thus, personal collections are often more idiosyncratic in their application of notational guidelines, while professionally executed manuscripts were regularly expected to be understandable by readers removed from both the composers represented in them and the scribes which did the work. At the same time, professional scribes were less likely to understand the notational subtleties they copied, or, indeed, be particularly interested in the musical result (often leading to more mistakes), a situation less likely in the context of a personal collector/scribe.

To an extent, the Machaut manuscripts with music seem to combine the best of both worlds. They were all executed professionally, and number of which with a direct link with the composer (at least as the commissioner and provider of exemplars, if not through regular and intensive involvement in the actual production work). As a result, they are indeed remarkable in the degree to which they agree and the quality of the readings. Still, the vast majority of the first section of this part of the website, as well as the other parts of this section are dedicated to exemplifying contexts in which the notation of the surviving sources is intrinsically lacking in detail, inconsistent in its application and use, or requiring adjustment or the breaking of the notational rules in order to make sense.

While such problems are by no means unique to them, the monophonic Virelais are a useful group to look at here as they tend to be simpler and more regular (making it easier to reconstruct the original intention), and use a relatively narrow range of notational tools. On numerous occasions, it is possible to identify places where division dots are missing (one such case is discussed here), or the different perfection and imperfection rules are miss-handled, resulting in impossible or highly unlikely readings. Still, what counts as an unlikely reading in this context is often found as a supposedly intentional effect in polyphonic works. Indeed, Schrade’s edition was criticized for ironing out many syncopations which are notated consistently in all surviving versions. Strophe X of L12/17 is an interesting example here, as a notationally strict transcription of appears in the sources yields the following, rather unlikely melodic line:

Score     ¦     Facsimile

In the indicated polyphonic realisation of this line, though, the syncopation makes complete sense. They give the dense polyphonic texture a rhythmic vitality, as the syncopated passage (repeated further on in the strophe) passes from voice to voice, each time supported by more regular rhythms performed by the other singers.


While Ludwig’s edition presented the rhythms given here (he seemed to have had a change of heart about the interpretation of such combination at some point during his work), Schrade adjusted his reading of the notation, and interpreted the notation against the strict rules. The result is less satisfactory, both rhythmically and harmonically, as now the dissonances appear starker.


In the edition, we have generally tried to follow the notation as strictly as makes sense (explaining departures in the critical apparatus when they appear), but with some important caveats. In attempting to convey meaning, medieval scribes had other tools to make their intentions clear, some of which were so visually clear they could easily overrule the strict notational rules. This may seem strange to the modern reader, used as we are to the assignation of absolute single meanings for each sign that we see. In modern practice, each sign can be interpreted independently of context. Technically, we have to look ahead in our music only when approaching a page turn. Otherwise it is done only for expressive purposes. For performers using medieval notational habits where single signs can have a range of meanings according to their surroundings, looking ahead and reacting to larger visual formulae was an essential part of music reading. It was unavoidable in a much earlier stage of preoccupation with a given piece, a long time before one reached confident, expressive performance.

For example, the use of a relatively long rhythmic unit followed by one or more dashes (even if they are sometimes indistinguishable form brevis or longa rests) would have given manuscript readers the immediate visual queue for an important ending, probably of a form-part or even the work as a whole. The expectation for such a cadential point to be placed at the beginning of a mensural unit rather than one minim before or after it (in modern term, at the beginning of a bar rather than an eighth note earlier or later) could easily trump the application of strict perfection rules. The most important of these tools is the spacing and grouping of notes, and their relationship with the underlaid text. Once more, the visual queue removes the need for close observance of the rules. With a combination of spacing and the likelihood of the positioning of new syllables, the visual arrangement can easily show whether to imperfect a semibrevis or not, regardless of the appearance of a dot, or whether it is followed by a string of five, six, seven, eight, nine or more minime.

The less than systematic nature of such habits can make the modern reader rather uneasy. Nevertheless, there is little point in attempting to interpret medieval materials using a different attitude to rules and conventions than did those who originally wrote and read them. While the musical notation used in Machaut’s complete-works collections is to an overwhelming degree exact, this precision cannot rely on the abstract rules of notation alone. Our difficulties in understanding it is due to our loss of cultural knowledge (and the odd mistake) rather than to an inbuilt deficiency in its use. That different sources present different readings does not invalidate this point. Such differences can be understood as mistakes or caused by other problems in the transmission of materials and their interpretation by scribes, but as a result of the flexibility of the music. We have no guaranty that the same musical result was meant in all surviving versions (on the contrary, large-scale changes in setting makes this expectation untenable), or that there ever was an identifiable, singe, ‘correct’ sounding result to which all copyist – and by extension, audiences – aspired to. As is often the case with medieval music, we are force to transcribe, analyse and interpret it through a prism that cannot be entirely regulated any set of axioms. As researchers and performers alike, our task is not only to make sure we are looking through it in the right direction, but that our very prism is configured in the most conscious, responsible, knowledgeable and constructive way.


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.

You can also enjoy the entire volume online via the Middle English Texts Website.

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.




The Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript

Full colour facsimile with introductory study by Lawrence Earp, Domenic Leo and Carla Shapreau. Preface by Christopher de Hamel

"It is a vast manuscript of royal luxury, 390 leaves of parchment, 314 mm. by 220 mm., illustrated with 118 enchanting miniatures by a workshop of court illuminators led by the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy.They include pictures of gothic chivalry and romance, with mythology and natural history. Music is included on 235 pages of the manuscript, with almost the entire corpus of the ballades, lais and motets of Machaut, as well as his great polyphonic setting of the Mass, the four-part Messe de Nostre-Dame.The manuscript has never before been photographed in its entirety or reproduced in colour."

"Vol. 1 introductory study (225 pages colour/mono), vol. 2 facsimile (789 full colour pages) on 150gsm matt art paper. Full size reproduction, hard bound in buckram, presented in hard slipcover."

Available now from DIAMM Publications.

The Art of Grafted Song: Citation and Allusion in the Age of Machaut by Yolanda Plumley

Available now from Oxford University Press

"Presents the first detailed exploration of citational practices in the song-writing tradition of fourteenth-century France. The first monograph-length study on the Ars nova chanson with new evidence about the emergence of the new polyphonic chanson. Provides new evidence about the circle of poets and composers who engaged with Machaut and created a new style of poetry and song. Explores little studied collections of lyrics and songs of the period and provides fresh insights and perspectives on Machaut's works."