Week 7 in Review

We both began and ended last week’s reading in Ch. 9, “Machaut and His Progeny.” This is notable not only because it is the largest chapter so far by page count (61), but also because it is the first chapter with a composer’s name in the title, indicating that we are reaching a time (14th c.) where the documents can allow more of a focus on the composer. Whether or not this is good historiographical practice, however, is an issue that is sure to come up again in the reading and our discussion here.

The week of posting began with some recordings of Machaut’s secular chansons, then continued by discussing the real and sometimes negative effect that the grouping of historical eras can have on our view of music history. This particular thread was taken up later in the week by Prof. Ralph Locke, who shared with us his experience of dealing with this issue in the classroom. Zach continued our historiographical theme by tackling the “musical prophecy.” He asked the question: if the Messa de Notre Dame is an anomaly in Machaut’s output, why does it assume such a prominent place in his contribution to history? You can read his answer here.

Other notes from this week’s reading:

The Luxuriant Style: The four-voice rondeaux of Machaut (e.g., Rose, liz, printemps) were written within a structural hierarchy: It can be performed in four-, three-, two-, or one-voice versions, with the cantus (the next-to-top voice) being that final principal voice.

Instrumentalists: Though instrumental repertoires were still largely oral in tradition at this time, the Faenza Codex gives us a glimpse of the arrangement and virtuosic embellishment of vocal genres that was possible.

Machaut’s Messa de Nostre Dame:

  • Background: The Mass Ordinary as a polyphonic genre had a crucial development at the papal court of Avignon, as represented by the numerous such settings of individual or paired Ordinary items in the Apt and Ivrea manuscripts. Votive Masses (for special occasions outside of the church calendar) lead to the grouping together of Ordinary settings in manuscripts.
  • Variety: Machaut’s mass is “no less a composite than the other Ordinaries of the time” (I, p. 317). Its items (Taruskin steers us away from calling them “movements”) vary both modally and texturally.
  • Unity: Machaut connects the items by their motet-style basis on isorhythmic tenors. The compositional style represents a synthesis and summary of motet, cantilena, and homorhythmic styles.

Subtilitas: The “subtle art” of Machaut and his successors emphasizes intricate relationships of text and music (hocket, onomatopoeia) and high displays of intellectual prowess (the essence of clus). It is an art engendered in the context of aristocracy, and in turn was meant for aristocratic ears.

In its heyday, this “high” approach touched all genres, even the socially “low”-class  virelai. The result was an opportunity for aristocratic listeners to make a jaunt into the more “naturalistic” flavor of peasant life, albeit from a safe distance.

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