2. Reception and Identity of Machaut’s Music

Assessing the wider reception of Machaut’s musical works is a rather problematic task. Not only is the survival of source materials irregular and patchy, with very few French music manuscripts surviving other than Machaut’s own collected works, but a distinction could be made between those who collected and copied this music and the activities of practicing musicians who would have incorporated sections of his oeuvre into their repertoires. While circulation and promulgation patterns of written copies and memorized music may well have intersected on occasion, there was no intrinsic need for them to do so. Still, as the clearest indication of at least some kind of circulation can be drawn from the diffusion of copies of Machaut’s music outside of his immediate surroundings, this evidence will be concentrated upon in the current discussion.

Clearly, knowledge of Machaut’s work can be attested to through other means than the appearance of whole works elsewhere. One such strand of evidence, namely, the practice of quoting his texts, music or both in new setting, is considered in the following discussion.

While new appearances are still being discovered, our current knowledge of musical concordances for Machaut’s works is summarized in the following table. Some of these sources survive in a very fragmentary state, which makes commenting on their contents difficult. Other versions are entirely lost to us today, but are attested to by a surviving original index (trém), a nineteenth-century copy (Str), or a twentieth-century photograph (Maggs)




The circulation of **** out of a sum total of 149 musical works (counting Mass movements individually) may seem like a small percentage, and can be taken as an indication that interest in Machaut’s music was limited outside it’s original context. On the other hand, this would still be the largest body of polyphonic music by any French composer of the fourteenth-century. The lack of other complete-works collections make it impossible to calculate a percentage of works in free circulation for anyone else, and the fact that these **** make a sum totla of **** appearances makes the list even more impressive. Some of the independently circulating songs were integrated in what Reinhard Strohm dubbed the “international repertory”, and are of the most widely copied works in the repertoire.[1] The fact that only three songs are ascribed correctly to Machaut, and that only in a single source is also explicable from context. The source in which these ascriptions appear (Ch) is the only source in this group to regularly ascribe the work of French composers. ModA supplies many ascriptions, but (with one or two exceptions) only to composers of Italian origins. Most other sources in the table above give very few or no ascriptions in the copying layers where Machaut’s works were to be found. The wrong ascription of three of the most popular songs of the time to Machaut in Str may suggest that even when actual knowledge of his compositions was ropey (none of the three works by him in this source are correctly ascribed), the name itself conveyed a sense of respectability and authority. It is as if the compiler of scribe thought to themselves: ‘these songs are so well known and popular, they must be by that Machaut person, him being the most famous composer name that comes to mind’. It may well be that some manuscript compilers were not aware of the authorship of the Machaut songs they possessed, but this does not diminish from the fact of circulation and collection, and the high rate of borrowing and quoting from Machaut's songs suggest an high degree of appreciation of these works even when their author may not have been known.

The question of musical identity was already considered as part of the discussion of alternative scoring withing Machaut’s collected works manuscripts. In that context, the variety of available versions was taken as testimony to the different attitude of our medieval fore-bearers to this issue. Further intensification of this difference results from the clear division between a distant composer and those responsible for the new input found in some of the concordances presented above.

Some scoring decisions were doubtlessly the result of the availability of materials. From the version contained in most copies outside Machaut’s own collections, it seemed clear that R7 had a wider circulation in the three-part version presented in MS E than in the two-part version contained in all the other dedicated Machaut manuscripts. While the division between MS E and the rest may direct us to question whether the new voice is by Machaut or not, a medieval collector presented only with the three-part setting had no reason to doubt its integrity or faithfulness to the composer’s intentions. Other changes, like the reduction of the scoring in the version of B18 found in Pr, may be due to a change in function, or simply the needs of a specific performing ensemble. All the works presented in that collection appear textless and in two voices, suggesting an intentionality behind the pattern.

Other changes may have been accepted as authorial, or, if recognized as new, may have been considered not to interfere with the original work. One such case could be the new contratenor present in the version of B22 is PR, which differs form the one presented in the Machaut manuscripts.




The two voices inhabit the same range and share some behavioral patterns. The only technical reason I can find for the replacement may be the decision to avoid the written in accidentals Machaut’s contratenor contains, but this could have been achieved much more simply by local changes, or by avoiding them while mainaining the original voice contour. Alternatively, perhaps the contratenor part became illegible in a circulating copy and required rewriting without access to an authorial copy. Even more prosaically, a change in personnel within a performing group may have led to a new contratenorista having to supply a voice him/herself without the guidance of their predecessor, with this version eventually being perpetuated in writing. Whatever the history behind it, its inclusion does not overly infringe on the unity and character of the piece.

Yet another group of reworked compositions show a much stronger compositional hand, and therefore, and awareness of the change in character. The versions of the two songs appearing in diminuted intabulations in Fa are so different from their original that it sometimes takes a deep knowledge of the original to even recognize the song model from the new version.




Even with the loss of the text, the reduction to a two-part scoring, the likely change of speed, and the ample ornamentation, there is no indication that the composer of the new version considered his efforts to be more than an adaptation of known works to his immediate needs. The likely function of the works contained in this source as practical, instrumental time-fillers within a liturgical, Italian, fifteenth-century context can explain all these changes without demanding an intentionally subversive or interventionist impulse behind them. The conscious effort to make something new, revise or change the essence of the old songs were probably secondary considerations, if they at all came into the mind of the musician responsible for the arrangement.

In the last example, though, the notion of a new, self-conscious ego operating upon an existing musical artifact is unavoidable. ModA includes two works with the incipit Se vous n’estes. Towards the end of its earlier layer (fol. 34r), the song is copied in two-parts in a secondary position, occupying the last three staves of the page left empty by the anonymous Virelai Je la remire sans mensure. Hidden within the second layer of this source is a single voice with the indication Cont[ra]tenor Se vous nestes par mon guerredonnee (fol. 5v), similarly occupying the last two staves of the page left over by the piece above, this time, the cantus of a Credo setting, most probably by Matteo da Perugia. On grounds both structural and musical, it is generally accepted that this too is by Matteo. Together, the two appearances can combine into a new three-part setting for this song.




It immediately becomes obvious that there was little attempt made to bridge the gap between old and new. Matteo uses extended leaps, chromaticism and augmented melodic progressions typical of his normal style, making no attempt to parody the style of the original song, written more than half a century earlier. He also chose to place his new contratenor below the old tenor rather than the more common procedure of making the two voices share a range, with the tenor occupying more lowest sounding notes than its counterpart. This decision forces the new contratenor to undermine more of the sonorities suggested by the old, structural duo, rather than act as an amplifying harmonic filler as does the MS E contratenor (at least for the most part). The artificiality of the addition is, of course, bolstered by the separate presentation of the contratenor voice. There is no pretense it forms part of an original, unified setting. Matteo takes this point even further by supplying three different ending possibilities for his new voice, presented consecutively in the manuscript. Such a procedure is otherwise unheard of. All three endings are highly unusual and avoid traditional cadence progressions. The first does lead to the standard location of the contratenor, namely the fifth between the structural duo’s octave. It does so, though, via a specifically notated chromatic progression G : G-sharp : A. The second ending option leads to a unison with the tenor and parallel octaves with the cantus, and involves the specified diminished fifth leap G : C-sharp. The last version for the final cadence, which was recorded in the extract above, is perhaps the most controversial. Here the contratenor leaps an octave downwards towards its final note, which is placed a fifth below the tenor. This changes the modal character of the final sonority of the song transferring importance from D to G. This effect echoes the beginning of the song, where the tenor harmonizes the cantus’ initial presentation of D as its modal center with the lower fifth G. In this third option, the new voice begins and ends on the same, extremely low pitch, highlighting further this mirroring effect. For me, the overall effect of Matteo’s contribution is of a subtle construct in which both his and Machaut’s musical identities remain intact and unbending, but are placed in dialogue bridging the decades, stylistic changes and indeed geographic affiliation that separate them.

For another case of the construction of a stylistic gap through Matteo’s use of Machaut’s music, see his quotation technique discussed below.


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."