Modal context

Different modal constellations suggest different likelihoods of ficta additions. Make sure you are aware of the central sonorities of the piece, and the melodic approaches to them dictated by the hexachord-signification (modern key-signature). As most additions of ficta destabilise the inflected note in the approach to a more stable one, it is less likely to inflect notes central to a work’s modality. This is especially relevant when other, more auxiliary notes are also available for manipulation. For example, the choice of ficta used in approaches to D will be different if the context is a D-piece or a C-piece, even before considering whether the C-piece has a flat or two in the key signature. The D-piece context is more likely to call for C-sharp emphasizing strong arrivals at the central sonority of the work. In the context of a C-piece, it would be a rather extreme decision to manipulate the pitch of the central sonority of the work, and D arrivals are anyway likely to be part of a softer ouvert progression. Both these considerations would suggest avoiding C-sharp and opting for E-flat instead.

A concrete example can be seen in an extract from L22/16, presented here with no editorial additions.

Score     ¦     Facsimile

This is the first ouvert cadence of the piece, with the written out repetition ending on G. Already here, the question as to whether to add ficta or not can be seen as entirely interpretative, relying on the sensitivities of the performer and the effect he or she are trying to create.

In this extract, for example, it is possible not to add any ficta at the end of this section, thus avoiding drawing attention to the ouvert arrival. Still, as this is the first strophe of the song and its modality is still being established, it may be deemed conducive to aid the ear in orientating towards the main cadential goal at play. The immediate melodic context of this example can accommodate the use of B-natural and G-sharp as strengthening tools for this cadence, especially after the earlier indications to use C-sharp and F-sharp. Other factors, though, may make an interpreter avoid this solution. The extract also contains an indicated B-flat and uses the notated sharps and the leap of a fifth to mark G and D as important modal locations. A larger modal context also shows G as a final arrival point of the musical repetition, making the G-sharp option rather less likely. In this larger context, it can be argued that a plagal progression involving B-flat gives the listener an audio-cue for an ouvert rather than a clos sonority, thus highlighting its structural position.

Once B-flat was opted for, the strength of the audible cue depends on the degree of its application. A number of these possibilities are explored in the examples given below, stretching back to the application of the F-sharp in the second part of the extract. Again, as long as the choices are made within a consistent frame-work and have performative consequences, many different versions are valid.

To complicate things further, a performer with a particularly developed structural sensitivity may look even wider when deciding how to inflect this cadence. A peculiarity of many of Machaut’s Lais sees the last strophe replicating the music of the first strophe but transposed a fifth higher. This is the case in L22/16 from which the extract is taken. Its final combination of ouvert and clos sonorities is therefore E and D respectively, rather than the A and G of the first iteration of the music. Our perhaps overly sensitive performer may decide to hint at this modal transformation by going against the grain of the first strophe and destabilizing the traditional cadential roles in it, reverting back to the B-natural and G-sharp option, or avoiding ficta altogether. While seeming rather analytical to the newcomer, all the options presented above can rely purely on the intuition of a performer acquainted with the work and the style within which it operates. They can, therefore, be said to follow its technical characteristics even when the definitions of what these characteristics are remain rather nebulous.

As this example shows, it is important to remember that the modal constellation can change within a single piece, and that Machaut used this effect within his music. But two more examples are En amer a douce vie (B41, discussed further in the contexts of cadence formulae and harmonic adjustment) which shifts to a flatter modal constellation in its B-part, and De petit po (B18) which begins both form parts in the same modal combination but has a shift towards more flats during the second half of each one of them.

Another element to keep in mind when choosing cadential ficta is the distance of specific accidentals from normal usage. When cadencing on E, for example, an authentic cadence structure would demand F-sharp and D-sharp to be used. D-sharp is a rare beast in the fourteenth century, and its use would need some extreme justification in terms of the immediate context. In the vast majority of cases, the plagal F and D would be more likely candidates for marking a cadence on E, even in pieces where F-sharp are a commonplace occurrence. Similarly, cadences on C will tend to use the authentic B-natural and D rather than the plagal B-flat and D-flat even in works with two flats in the key signature. As a result, I would contend that the choice of where in the Gamut to notate a piece (as well as its transposition if it has multiple versions) affects the likelihood of the addition of different inflections. Two versions of a song, copied once in F with consistent B-flat and once in G with consistent F-sharp are likely to lead to different ficta solutions, even if the notated intervallic and harmonic relationships remain the same in both. The inherent instability of B versus B-flat, for example, may well have led performers of the G copy to construct a plagal cadence to A. Such a progression would have been very unusual when using the F copy, as it would have required the insertion of A-flat as ficta. For a plagal effect in the F version, A would still have been the most likely point of arrival, placing it on the third rather than the second degree of the scale. This state of affairs can be even more confusing to modern readers as the lack of a stable pitch in the Middle Ages could theoretically have resulted in both such potential versions starting on the same sounding frequency.


Uri Smilansky


Fortune's Child

Out now on the Hyperion websiteFortune's Child is the most recent recording of Machaut's works from the Orlando Consort. As Fabrice Fitch of Gramophone notes, "five volumes in, Hyperion’s Machaut series shows no sign of running out of puff." Complimenting their performance, Fitch says "the Orlandos project and enunciate Machaut’s French so well that one rarely reaches for the printed text" and he is particularly impressed by Angus Smith's interpretation of 'Dou mal qui m'a longuement'. He further remarks, "as with previous volumes, the programming of this series is deeply impressive."

A Burning Heart

CD Cover Image for "Machaut: A Burning Heart" by the Orlando Consort

Available now from the Hyperion website, the Orlando Consort's latest CD, A Burning Heart, is already receiving critical acclaim. Blair Sanderson, writing for, describes the Consort's singing as "wonderfully evocative and full of medieval atmosphere." While Brian Wilson, for MusicWeb International, declares: "I doubt...if either Chaucer or Chrétien could have imagined anything better than the singing on this and the other Orlando Consort Machaut recordings."


***********************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 Dart of Love

Available now from the Hyperion website, The Dart of Love is second in a series of recordings by the Orlando Consort of Machaut's music. It has already received critical acclaim:

The Orlando Consort perform these works with matchless purity of tone and clarity of diction. (Limelight, Australia)

The programme is nicely varied in mood and scoring, ranging from four-voice ballades and motets to a single-voice virelai, and every combination in between … a thoughtful essay by Anne Stone makes audible sense of the many connections between the pieces on this valuable, impressive recording. (Gramophone)

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."



New Voir Dit CD

Available now from the Hyperion website.

This new CD from the acclaimed Orlando Consort showcases songs from Machaut's Livre dou Voir Dit (‘Book of the True Tale’). The recording was inspired by collaborative work between our project team and the Orlando Consort who have been trialling the new edition being produced. You can watch a video of the consort discussing their recording on YouTube.

It has already received critical acclaim: David Fallows for Gramophone writes:

To my ears, this is a dream team, with the enormously experienced Donald Greig and Angus Smith alongside ...Matthew Venner and Mark Dobell, who display the most magnificent articulation of the texts alongside the understanding of the lines gained from their senior colleagues...always dead in tune, always beautifully balanced...the unforgettable track here is Angus Smith performing the 'Lay de Bon Esperance', over 20 minutes of unaccompanied solo singing...He's terrific.