Guillaume de Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame

Here is a link to the Online Reserves page dedicated to Machaut's mass. Through the magic of Real Audio you can listen to it on your home computer.

To hear another late work of Machaut's click here.

In the thirteenth century there began to appear anonymous manuscripts containing settings of the complete Ordinary (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Ite Missa Est). It is uncertain if the manuscripts collected together various settings of sections of the Mass or if they were intended to be performed as a whole. There was nothing - a repeating motive, or a similarity in compositional style - that tied the individual parts together. By the mid-1300s this changed with the composition of Guillaume de Machaut's Mass of Our Lady, the earliest known polyphonic setting of the Mass by a single composer. Why Guillaume composed it has been subject of a heated debate in musicological circles for some time. The first scholars felt that it was written for the coronation of Charles V in 1364: the cathedral at Rheims, (map), where Machaut had been a canon since the 1340s, was traditionally the site for French coronation ceremonies. Later scholarship, using the name as an entrypoint and confirmed by the use of Kyrie IV as a cantus-firmus, felt that the Mass was written for a Marian feast day, such as the Nativity. Other scholars believe that it was a written for performance during memorial Masses endowed through a fund provided by Guillaume Machaut and his brother and in their honor. It has remained an important and influential work to this day. (Compare Stravinsky's Mass of 1948)
Guillaume de Machaut is not only known as perhaps the finest composer of the fourteenth century, but also as one of the finest French poets of the time. Machaut was likely born in 1300 in Rheims and is believed to have studied in Paris. Records later show him travelling throughout Europe in the retinue of John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia. By 1340 he returned to Rheims and took up a career as a canon at the cathedral. He had a small home attached to the cathedral and from there devoted himself to writing music and poetry. In his later years he began a relationship with a young woman named Peronne. The hunchbacked and elderly Machaut appears to have truly been in love, a love that was unrequited. The two shared many letters and often Machaut would send his compositions to the young woman. It is from their correspondence that we begin to have record of the notion of reading music from a notated score - a novel idea in the fourteenth century. In his later years, Machaut set about the task of compiling his life's work for posterity.

Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377)
Things to Note
The cantus firmus (generally a borrowed fragment of music which provides the foundation for polyphonic elaboration) for this Kyrie is the old favorite, Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor. The melody is sung in the tenor part throughout the polyphonic sections of the work. It is, however, rather difficult to hear this melody for a variety of reasons. First, the melody has been rhythmicized according to isorhythmic principles. Second, the vocal parts are not individuated in a way we have come to expect them to be. Consequently, they consistently overlap and intertwine and it becomes difficult to tease out individual melodies. Machaut did not conceive of four independent voices as composers of the later Renaissance might do, rather they are viewed symmetrically: as two low voices and two high voices.
Note how the music seems to move from consonance to consonance, think stability to stability, through periods of instability. At this point in musical history, composers still thought according to the old rules of organum: there is no strict sense of meter, nor of strong beats and weak ones, instead time flows accented only by the appearance of consonances.
The recording we are using is quite different from other recordings. The recordings of chant we have listened to, such as Puer Natus est, follow the prescribed method of singing developed in the 19th century by the monks at the French monastey of Solesmes. The ensemble featured on this recording has made a point of viewing early music as it may have sounded prior to the Solesmes reform. Note the rough sound of their chant (and their polyphony) and the almost Eastern ornamentations added to it.
The timings below refer only to the recording by Ensemble Organum (HMC 901590). the recording on the online reserves at Columbia University contains a different performance style, technique and timings.

Original Partbook of Machaut's Mass
Listening Chart

Guillaume de Machaut: Kyrie from the Messe de Notre Dame (1364?)

Kyrie Eleison 0:00 Kyrie I: Full choir sings in polyphony. Tenor voice contains the Cantus Firmus (Kyrie Cunctipotens Genitor) in isorhythm.
Kyrie Eleison 1:15 Kyrie I (repeat): Three soloists sings same music with ornamentation. The top voice (triplum) is omitted.
Kyrie Eleison 2:25 Kyrie I (repeat): Full group sings again.(All four parts)

Christe Eleison 3:40 Christe: Three soloists sing new music polyphonically with ornamentation. Top voice again is omitted.
Christe Eleison 4:45 Christe (repeat): Full choir sings full polyphony.
Christe Eleison 5:50 Christe (repeat): Three soloists again sing with ornamentation. Top voice again omitted.

Kyrie Eleison 6:55 Kyrie II: Full choir sings new music polyphonically.
Kyrie Eleison 7:45 Kyrie II (repeat): Three soloists repeat music with some ornamentation. Top voice omitted.
Kyrie Eleison 8:35 Kyrie II (repeat): Full choir sings polyphonically.

Original Partbook of Machaut's Mass

Kyrie Eleison

Christe Eleison

Kyrie Eleison

Lord have mercy.

Christ have mercy

Lord have mercy

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All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.