i. Voice Hierarchy and Structure

The genre in which the hierarchic structure of the polyphonic fabric is clearest is certainly the motet. Since its origin in the early thirteenth century, the motet was traditionally constructed departing from a borrowed melody with its words which, rhythmicized in large values, served as its lowest part, the tenor. In most motets this melody was a melismatic fragment from Gregorian chant. Such is also the case with Machaut’s contributions to the genre; in three works only did he use a secular song as basis, thereby following another thirteenth-century tradition which otherwise had no follow-up in the fourteenth. The tenor is not the only borrowed material; also in the upper voices, called motetus and triplum, verbal citations are often found, usually from thirteenth-century songs though normally not together with their melody as in the tenor. All these citations point to the fact that the motet was an intellectual genre: to unravel the deeper meaning of the work one had to recognize the quotations in the first place, next to understand their context and the reason why they were chosen, and thirdly to apprehend how they are used in their new context. Only the literate had the necessary culture to appreciate these references to the past.

Machaut’s works in this genre are transmitted exclusively with their music (with a small exception, his motet about Fortune, M8, which appears in one peripheral source as text only); this is unlike the other lyric genres where usually both versions with and without music appear in the manuscripts. It is an indication that text and music were considered to be inseparable in the motets.

The choice of the melisma that, with its text, was to serve as the tenor depended on the pre-defined subject of the work, usually a problem of some kind. Remarkably, Machaut always found a fitting melisma, having the right words and a melody which permitted the composition of a polyphonic work. This is not as obvious as it may seem: the melisma had to offer possibilities for cadences and certainly for a satisfying closure. Not any melodic fragment will do, and Machaut must have known the Gregorian repertoire extremely well to make the choices we find in his works. Most but not all of his tenors have been identified; of the identified ones it is amazing how well not only the words but also the original context fits the subject and how each melody permitted the composition of an exciting piece of music.

Machaut’s original corpus of motets consisted of a series of 20 pieces, all but one for three voices and probably all finished at a fairly early stage, to which in the late 1350s three four-voice motets were added. Typical is his preference for subjects of courtly love and for the French language whereas his contemporaries more often chose political or ceremonial subjects with texts in Latin. In six of Machaut’s 23 motets, including the late ones, comparable subjects are dealt with, indeed in Latin. In the majority of his works, however, a parallel is drawn between the religious plane of the biblical world evoked by the tenor and the courtly world in the newly composed upper voices which each present the problem in a different manner or from different angles. This parallel can give rise to very different interpretations, depending on how much weight one assigns to each of the two spheres.

M1, Quant en moy/Amour et biauté/Amara valde, was probably meant as an exemplary work: in all but one of the main manuscripts this work is placed first, and in his ordering of his works per genre Machaut always placed a special work in the front position. Its texts as well, namely in the triplum, indicate a beginning. It may therefore serve as an illustration of the hierarchic structure of the motet.  The following discussions do not attempt to offer a complete interpretation of the piece, but rather illustrate selective characteristics of its hierarchical structuring, both as a representative of the motet genre and as relevant to its specific theme.[1]

The discussion is divided up into consideration of the choice and combination of text typifying the motet genre, the process of creating order using different musical parameters, illlustrated using M1, and the structuring use of counterpoint in this piece to highlight the central ideas of its text. Appended to the various explorations of this motet is a short overview of the differences in attitude to structure and hierarchy in the songs compared with the motet genre.

As reading through these discussions will make clear, M1 presents a reflection on the idea of perfection and the difficulty to reach it: perfection as a mensural idea; perfection in the sense of fulfilment as a goal of love and as the acceptation by the beloved; perfection as an ideal of comportment to strive after for a lover who wants to ‘perfect’ himself. This makes M1’s place at the head of the series of motets a well deserved one.

Not in all Machaut’s motets is the hierarchical structure as clear-cut as in M1; often the upper voices are more similar in movement, although the motetus is always slower than the triplum. In M11, the only other motet in which the lover addresses himself directly to his lady and which has a secular song for its tenor, the three voices are closest in movement, suggesting a greater degree of intimacy (this work is taken as a case study for the addition of ficta here). In other works the voices are more divergent, as when the tenor moves in maximodus, the very large values of maximae and longae, e.g. in M3. The prolatio level is the most formulaic and thus the least varied and interesting in rhythm; interesting problems of mensuration occur mainly in the larger values of tempus and modus. In this respect the motets differ from the songs where the modus level is often less important and rhythmic complications are found on the level of tempus and prolatio. M20, built on a rondeau and moving mainly in values of tempus and prolatio, is the exception, with some interesting rhythmic complications on the prolatio level. This work forms the transition between the genres of motet and song; in the earliest manuscript C it closed the series of motets. Interestingly, apart from M1, this motet alone has perfect mensuration overall. Thus in its original concept Machaut’s series of 20 motets began and ended with a motet in exclusively perfect values, suggesting that at least in the motets the traditional qualitative distinction between perfect and imperfect mensuration, whereby imperfect values were felt to need completion, was still in vigour.


Jacques Boogaart

[1] For a more extensive discussion of M1 with sometimes different interpretations and conclusions, see Alice V. Clark, ‘The Motets Read and Heard’, in Deborah McGrady & Jennifer Bain, eds, A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 185-208.



***********************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."