1. Un-notated Mensuration Changes

Notated changes of menusration are extremely rare in the Machaut manuscripts, and are restricted to the version of B4 in MS E and – in a less systematic manner – to the presentation of L5/6 and L6/7. There are other places in his oeuvre, though, that require mensural shifts. Perhaps the best known and most widely discussed case is that of the new triplum of R10.[1]

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

Here, typical notational groupings are the only indication for the six mensuration changes appearing in a single iteration of the music, as well as to the requirement to begin performing this voice in a different mensuration from the older three voices. A complete performance of the song in Rondeaux form involves 26 mensural shifts in this voice, making it one of its central characteristics.

In interpreting R10 one is aided by its polyphonic context. Other cases do not afford such luxury and consequently remain more opaque. The monophonic V18, for example, has a number of interesting features, including a notated upbeat. In the score below the initial rest is put in parentheses as MS A - our base manuscript for transcription - uniquely fails to supply it.

Score     ¦     Facsimile

Relevant to the current discussion is the group ‘semibrevis, semibrevis rest, semibrevis’ at the beginning of the third line of text (transcribed as a series of dotted quarter-notes and framed by a rectangle in the score).

Notationally, the beginning of the song demands perfect prolatio (equating a semibrevis with a tertiary dotted quarter-note), and the underlay and groupings provided by the source strongly suggest coupling groups of three minime into units of six (resulting in an imperfect Tempus or 6/8 baring). The group highlighted, though, does not fit in with this structure, creating a visual and rhythmic dissonance with its surrounding.

A number of possibilities arise for interpreting this passage. The solution adopted by Ludwig and Schrade was to omit the rest altogether:    

Sound and Score

If this is deemed too extreme an intervention, it is possible to maintain the sign, reading it as a breath mark, or even correct it to a minima rest. The positioning of such a sign may be musically understandable, separating the cadence note from what follows, but the clear and precise underlay here shows it to appear after the first syllable of line 3 of the text, making this interpretation problematic:     

Sound and Score

Further, separation lines tend to be longer than a semibrevis rest, and occupy at least one full space of the staff. Considering the meagre sense of creating a separation here and the agreement of all sources on the inclusion of a rest, a different approach is called for. Now we arrive at the possibility of mensuration change.

The first possibility is to see this group as signifying a shift to perfect tempus (modern 9/8). One can then treat this measure in isolation, lengthening it while keeping the surrounding measures in the original tempus (a similar case of an extended measure was already presented elsewhere), or make a wholesale transition to the new mensuration, keeping it to the end of the form-part:

Sound and Score

The latter option seems less likely when taking into account the underlay pattern and the position of the line break. The double-perfect menusration is also relatively rare in comparison with others, especially in Machaut's monophonic virelais. More likely are changes of grouping such as those discussed above in relation to R10, that is, between the two mensurations divisible by six (3/4 and 6/8). As the perfect tempus imperfect prolatio (3/4) mensuration was generally more frequently used, it is not implausible to conceive of medieval readers shifting to it rather than to its perfect prolatio relation when confronted with this sign combination. The resulting reading is as follows:     

Sound and Score

It is possible to see this as a momentary change, but the rest of the form-part fits well within the new time-signature, suggesting it should perhaps be maintained. Indeed, this reading mirrors the change in underlay pattern at this point, and fits well with the melodic and rhythmic figures used. A reader would easily find his or her way back to the original mensuration both when repeating the section (between the versicle and the refrain) and when transitioning into the musical B-part (refrain to couplets), as both clearly call for the perfect prolatio within their first rhythmic gesture. Personally, this reading seems the most satisfactory.

A final option builds on what appears to be the mistaken omission of the first rest in MS A. In another discussion, I consider whether this is a problem or not for reading the song as beginning with an upbeat, but in a strict reading, the mistake allows for a straightforward reading in 6/8 to be mathematically viable:     


Such a reading would have to 'correct' the versicle music, removing the rest that appears at the beginning of that section. It also plays havoc with the alignment of the brevis units with the text underlay, the melodic contours, cadential points, and text stresses. If we consider it a viable reading based on this one single source, it may have considerable implications on our understanding of the hierarchy of meter-implying tools at Machaut’s disposal. Such a reading may suggest that subverting the mensural structure may be rather easy in practice.


Uri Smilansky

[1] See, for example, Rhichard H. Hoppin, ‘Notational Licences of Guillaume de Machaut’. Musica Disciplina, xiv (1960), pp. 13-27, esp. pp. 20-3.



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

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

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