2. The Question of Modus

When transcribing Machaut’s music into modern notation, the editor must make a choice regarding the rhythmic level of transcription—that is, the medieval note values Longa , Brevis, Semibrevis, and Minima must be translated into the modern whole note, half note, quarter note, and so forth. This translation process is complicated by the fact that in the course of the fourteenth century there was a shift in use of note values so that while at the beginning of the century music moved mostly in longae and breves with some semibreves, by the middle of the century music moved mostly in breves, semibreves, and the newly-invented minime. In medieval terms, the relationship between the longa and the brevis was called “modus,” brevis and semibrevis called “tempus,” and semibrevis and minima called “prolation.” So using medieval terminology, the question facing modern editors of Machaut’s music is: should the modern edition form the measure around the modus of the original notation, so that the longa is transcribed as a measure, or should the modern edition form the measure around the tempus so that a brevis fills the measure?[1] Machaut’s songs exhibit an ambivalence with respect to these note levels that is intriguing and not fully understood by modern scholars. The two previous editions of Machaut’s music grappled in different ways with the best way to transcribe the songs. Ludwig tended to choose modus level organization more often (in 20 ballades and 12 rondeaux, for example, roughly half of the polyphonic songs), while Schrade favored tempus level much more.

The question of modus organization is complicated, moreover, by the fact that in many cases Ludwig chose to transcribe songs with variable bar lengths, corresponding to what he perceived to be shifts between perfect modus and imperfect modus. In some cases, such as B12, it is clear that perfect modus organization prevails and both scholars transcribed the song at that level.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

That song has the peculiar feature that its refrain, Se je chant mains que ne sueil, appears also as the incipit of a chace copied into the manuscript Iv and of a ballette (without musical notation) in the manuscript Douce 308 (See further discussion of this work and its predecessors here. This line is also found in the motetus part of a motet in the Montpellier manuscript (no. 277)).  This song is in the older notation of the early fourteenth century, and clearly organized in major modus; the organization of the originating song seems to have governed Machaut’s choice of metric organization for the ballade. Here is its presentation in the cantus voice of B12, moving clearly in longs and breves:

In some cases, though, Machaut’s rhythmic organization seems not to fully partake of either perfect or imperfect modus groupings. In such cases, the editor has to determine which level to use following the layout of large-scale metric groupings, the placement of major cadences, and the text placement. Ludwig transcribed 33 songs using modus instead of tempus as the measure, and in 25 of these he used a variable measure length, alternating between imperfect and perfect modus. An example of this procedure is found in B23, whose B section is transcribed below following Ludwig’s barring:

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile


Anne Stone


Additional notes

It is easy to see the logic of Ludwig’s barring technique, but it also becomes apparent that the lack of notational constraints requires a problematic degree of interpretation, at least as far as the choice of which parameters to privilege when making barring decisions. For example, an argument could be made to rebar measures 21-23 in his transcription to follow a 3-2-2 groupings rather than the 2-2-3 groupings suggested. This arrangement fits better with the melodic and motivic behavior of the cantus, the pattern of the underlay, and the harmonic pattern of bar 23 and its relationship to the ouvert. The same can also be done at the beginning of the refrain, swapping over the arrangement of the first two bars.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

That I find such groupings more pleasing does not mean Ludwig was wrong to suggest his, only that both versions give an image of how we interpret the music rather than what information is given to us by the source.

Another example is considered in another discussion, where even the tempus level of organization is notationally ambiguous, and a host of other parameters are considered in order to choose between a number of possible transcriptions.

Remaining in the realm of modus, the “flexible modus” notion can be looked at from a different perspective. Put rather crudely, the “flexible modus” approach imagines Machaut as working within a system constructed upon the modus level, but which allowed un-notated changes between modus groupings, some of which are so subtle that agreement cannot easily be reached concerning their actual arrangement. As an alternative, one can suggest that while long phrases undoubtedly exist (as they do in all other music, regardless of how short the bars used to notate it), there is little reason to expect them to adhere to a theoretically conceived system, however flexible it may be. Instead, we can see Machaut as playing with phrase-length on a less tightly regulated rhythmic level, creating and breaking rhythmic expectations as an expressive effect in his compositional arsenal. The constant changes in B23, for example, can be seen as characterizing tool for the song, portraying Fortune’s changeability, or perhaps less specifically, creating the sense of instability and unease described by the singer.

The lack of stability on the modus level can be seen even in examples where musical organization using breves and longae undoubtedly prevails. B12 discussed above takes centre-stage in another discussion, looking at traces of revision of early versions of some works. While the notational characteristics of the song as a whole do not change between the versions, the regularity of the modus pattern is broken at the beginning of the musical B-part by the insertion of another brevis’-worth of music into the first musical phrase of the section.

A last example may seem even more surprising. L5/6 is a very interesting work, as it is one of two lais to contain explicit mensuration changes.[2]  Both indicated changes concern the quality of the tempus, resulting in a perfect tempus for strophes VIII-X, while the rest of the work operates in an imperfect tempus. The beginning and end of this work, though, operate in a relatively clear perfect modus, and there is even the occasional need to use perfection rules on that level (not until b. 41, though). This applies to strophe XII (which contains a transposed version of strophe I), but not to strophe XI, which has already reverted back to imperfect tempus. There is no sign, or indeed, any new notational input marking the change. It is left entirely to the musical sensitivity of the performer. It seems notationally significant to show changes in tempus groupings, but not those of modus groupings.

This pattern is even clearer in strophe II of this work. Earlier editions preferred maintaining the perfect modus (Ludwig even opted for maximodus for sections of this work, which compounded his barring problems), and therefore removed the rest at the middle of the strophe and accepted the unusual ending where the last bar of a form part does not mark the melodic, rhythmic or textual arrival at a structural end-point. Both used a larger reduction level for the modus sections, which for ease of comparison, I avoided here.


It is possible, though, to read this section as containing two insertions of two imperfect groups, after which normal service resumes.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

There is no need for a mensuration change or even a theoretical conceptualization for its existence. Rather it is the way the music behaves, even looks on the page, creating an audible surprise to attract attention to this location. Such a rare occurrence within a long and complicated work which pays special attention to mensuration shifts hardly merits the assignation of the whole song as belonging to a different type of theoretical construct. It just differentiates from the notationally stricter tempus level and the less regulated patterns of modus structures, at least within song composition (for another local notational case within a lai, which may, for a different theoretical reason, have wide-ranging implications for the work as a whole, see here).

Again, both this, and the “flexible modus” approach are conceptualizations designed to deal with notational and musical irregularities. Each has its advantages and draw-backs, and would fit different analytical and performance-related contexts.

In our edition, we have tried to avoid at least some of these issues by applying the general rule that barring level should follow notational need, while allowing for adjustments on a case by case basis when such a procedure leads to unsatisfactory results. L5/6, therefore, uses modus bars for its beginning and end, but changes bar-length silently in the location discussed above. Our version of B23 uses the tempus as the basic barring (and counting) level, but removing bar-lines when they would create a tie on a voice-by-voice basis.


This avoids over-cluttering the score and allows technical parameters such as the use of longer note-values or syncopation to be visually clear, while not privileging a single musical grouping. Each reader can find their own way to cope with (or relish) the irregularities of its phrase-structure. One mensural change that isn’t made obvious is the treatment of form-part endings. These are regularly marked by lines indistinguishable from rests (b. 52 in the B23 example). There are cases where these rests must be counted, as one of the voices provides a bridge to the next section, while at other times, a pause in all voices seems counter-intuitive, or works against the syntax of the text. To mark these places out, we maintained the rest, but compressed it with the cadence note into one bar, which is now longer than its surroundings. We hope this exceptional usage will attract attention to these locations, calling readers to make a choice as to how to understand them in their myriad contexts.


Uri Smilansky


[1] An exhaustive treatment of this issue is found in David Maw, “’Trespasser Mesure: Meter in Machaut’s Polyphonic Songs,” Journal of Musicology 21 (2004): 46-126.

[2] See Benjamin L. Albritton, “Moving Across Media: Machaut’s Lais and the Judgement”, in Deborah McGrady and Jennifer Bain (eds), A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut (Brill: Leiden, Bosto, 2012), pp. 119-39.




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