5. Error or Deliberate?

In comparison with his contemporaries, Machaut's works seem to suggest he was rather liberal in his use of dissonance. However, since his well-preserved oeuvre constitutes by far the most comprehensive source material we possess from his time, such a comparison is difficult: we cannot be certain as to how far Machaut really was exceptional in these matters, or whether the generally accepted conventions and the latitude they left for dissonance are insufficiently known to us. Alternatively, his exemplar may have contained errors that were taken over in all the manuscripts copied from it. In several of Machaut’s works such grave contrapuntal conflicts are found that they must be considered either as errors or as deliberate decisions to transgress the conventions, perhaps in some cases for the sake of text expression. A few problematic passages from the motets may serve as examples.

Let’s begin with a doubtful case:     Score 

In M3, bar 42, a dissonance d-c between triplum and motetus lasts for a brevis. It could be a mistake since collisions like this one are not very frequent in Machaut’s works; on the other hand, all the manuscripts contain it. Although for the modern ear such a long-lasting dissonance is hard to accept (and easy to “remedy”), theoretically, the clash could have been acceptable since both the upper voices are concordant with the tenor. The author of Quatuor principalia (John of Tewkesbury, active during the second half of the 14th century) permits dissonance in three-voice counterpoint under the condition that two of the possible three voice pairs are consonant.

M18 is an early work, probably composed in 1324-5 for the enthronement of Guillaume de Trie as archbishop of Reims in that year:     Score

In talea III, bars 51-62 present a very strange sound. The unexpected augmented sixth between tenor and motetus in bar 56-7 is particularly hard to explain, the more so since, just before, the upper voices are in unison above a rest in the tenor: nothing prepares us for this sudden tension. In the earliest manuscript, C, the g of the motetus has no mi-sign so that there the problem does not occur. Could the sharpening be a later addition, or did the scribe of C forget the sign; or is it a mistake that crept in later? If it is not a mistake, was the combination of g-sharp and b-flat meant as a double leading tone for a strong cadence on a? In that case the continuation is curious since right after it, in bars 59-62, an equally strong cadence on G follows, and then a weaker one on F. If one compares the passage with the opening of the piece (which has the same tenor notes) the cadences in the first talea are much more the expected ones, the last one on F being the strongest; the cadence succession in talea III is much more surprising. Clearly, then, the dissonance in bars 56-7 is a deliberate choice and must have been meant to shock. But for what reason? In order to make the following cadence on G all the more satisfying after the dissonant delay? The c-sharp in the triplum in bar 59 as a leading note for the next cadence also comes as a surprise. The tension caused by these sharpened notes contrasts strongly with the dominating motif of the piece, the triad c-e-g which sounds so vigorously at the opening of the motet, crosswise: ascending in the triplum, descending in the motetus and both times on the words Bone pastor. That same ascending motif is repeated at the second color entry in the motetus (bars 51-2), on the name of the ‘Good shepherd’, Guillerme, but its harmonic stability is immediately disrupted by the g-sharp in bar 56. Could it be explained as an attack on the bishop’s steadfastness which is praised in the motet and which would then be expressed by the energetic triadic motif? Far-fetched as this explanation seems, there may be a textual argument, since at the end of the triplum text the speaker prays God to give Guillermus ‘a stable dominion in place of this unsteady one’ (‘Stabile dominium Pro labili.’).

Even more problematic are the collisions in M5, a four-part composition:     Score

This motet is often supposed to be an early work written in emulation of a motet by Philippe de Vitry;[1] however, since the work is very subtle in its use of both musical and textual quotations, in its deceptive notation and its text expression, it might very well be a later work.[2]  Several clashes occur between the voices; was four-part counterpoint more permissive? Take for example bars 27-31: all the manuscripts have a c in the motetus which is dissonant with the contratenor’s D for a length of no less than two perfect breves; an emendation of the motetus to d (Ludwig’s solution) or to a (my suggestion) seems preferable. A little later (bar 30) the G of the tenor is overlaid with a G-sharp in bar 31 in the motetus (found in all the manuscripts except E); the severe dissonance, lasting for only a semibrevis, could only be solved by not holding the tenor note until the end. The tenor’s G cannot be sharpened as this borrowed voice is never to be altered to agree with an upper voice, it is always the other way round: the upper voices must adapt to the tenor. Such chromaticism as found here is extreme, however. A miscalculation is a real possibility but one could also think of deliberate transgression for the sake of text expression; the motetus text speaks about the ‘false lover who does not take heed of the god of Love’ whereas the lover in the triplum vows to do what is pleasing Good Love. Moreover two successive plicas in bars 31-2 of the motetus (not in all the manuscripts) emphasize this moment in the text.

Text expression, therefore, may sometimes serve as an explanation of otherwise unjustifyable dissonances, although this is difficult to prove, since no theorist ever dropped a word on such devices.

Some other cases are dealt with elsewhere on this website. M11 and the possible solutions for its contrapuntal problems appear in a number of discussions, but most extensively in relation to the application of editorial musica ficta.

M1, a model motet which not for nothing was placed first in the motet collections in all manuscripts also contains a model contrapuntal problem discussed under Voice hierarchy and structure.


Jacques Boogaart


[1] See Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Compositional Techniques in the Four-Part Isorhythmic Motets of Philippe de Vitry and his Contemporaries. New York: Garland, 1989, pp. 88-107.

[2] See Jacques Boogaart, ‘Encompassing past and present: quotations and their function in Machaut’s motets.’ Early Music History 20 (2001), pp. 56-86.



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