Although you might never have heard of him, Guillaume de Machaut is famous for his poetry as well as his musical compositions. Medievalists love him because he demarks the end of the true medieval era—both the style of his music and his poetry change: from monody (one melodic line sung or played by everyone in unison) to polyphony (multiple melodic lines—but still not harmony in the modern sense), and from literal stories (biblical, mostly) to romance, metaphor, and allegory. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he affected literature and music as you know it.
His name is probably derived from the town of Machault (note the L), less than 20 miles from Rheims, where he lived out the last few years of his life. At the time, it was Frankish land, but it had long been contested by Romans, Gallic insurrection, and fun folks such as the Vandals and Attila the Hun. Like others at the time, he was given a first name and then the town of origin was tacked on to identify which Guillaume was meant. Nowadays, we call him by his surname, Machaut.
He lived during a time of artistic, political, and religious secularization, and although he was a cleric, he spent his time in secular circles, producing poetry and music about equally. He was admired and imitated by other poets all over Europe, including Geoffrey Chaucer. His poetry is often compared favorably to that of Petrarch, according to French contemporaries.
He seems to have bounced around Europe for a while, becoming a priest and then in 1323, secretary to the King of Bohemia. In 1340, his principal residence was in Rheims, and by 1349, he served the King of Navarre. There was a lot of anti-Semitism and instigation of violence against the Jews in his work, including accusations of poisoning wells and causing the Black Plague that devastated France in 1349. Sadly, his attitude was all too common.
He had many royal connections, including the King of Cyprus and the court of Savoy. He followed his various military patrons wherever they wandered, including Silesia, Poland, Italy, Lithuania, and all over France. But it must have been a terrifying time. People all around him, including his patrons, were dying of the black death. He managed to survive to write about it.
He was a master of the Ars Nova and among the great composers of all time. Ars Nova is a musical style that flourished in the 14th century. Basically, it marks a change of direction from strictly sacred, modal music (see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes), to a more open attitude about scales and secular music. At this point, music began to move toward chords via polyphony and from church service-specific to occasion-specific.)
In his lifetime, he was most famous for writing Roman de Fauvel, an allegorical “novel” (the literary form of a novel hadn’t yet been invented), an attack on the vices of the times using a biblical theme. The name of Fauvel the horse is an acronym from the letters that begin the words flattery, avarice, usury, villainy, envy, and lowness. The story goes that Fauvel was so successful as a horse that he aspired to marry Fortune. She’s annoyed by his attentions and sends a substitute, VainGlory, whom Fauvel unknowingly marries. Their children grow up to become a menace to all of France. The story was probably written as a commission for Philip IV because there are allegorical attacks on the Knights of Templar in it. The Templars were one of Philip IV’s pet enemies, largely because he couldn’t repay a debt to them.
Machaut was the master of the isorhythmic motet (meaning that there was a single rhythm throughout the piece), but deserted it for polyphony (multiple melodic lines and varied rhythms) once he’d heard it. He wasn’t really an innovator here, but he refined polyphonic music until it became the definitive musical form of his time.
He would have had both men and women singers in his (secular) choir, and when the minstrels tired of playing for dancers at parties, the singers took over. This would have been a departure from most parties at the time.
Machaut diligently documented all of the various forms of music that existed at the time, such as the viralai, the chanson, and the rondeaux, leaving a record to help music historians figure out when these forms were invented.
In addition, he wrote about 400 poems, most of which didn’t get set to music, and it seems that he wrote the words before he wrote the music when he did set them. Common themes were war, captivity, religion, and courtly love.
He wrote one Mass and two motets with liturgical connections. All the rest of his compositions were secular. There are 21 motets, nearly all of which were based on plainsong melodies or secular songs. There are nearly 120 works based on secular song forms, such as the lai, which is lengthy and mainly monophonic; the virelai, which is mostly monophonic, like the works of trouvères; and rondeaus and ballades, which are almost all polyphonic, in two or three parts, and very rarely four, and are often performed with one singer and accompanying instruments. Machaut was one of the last composers to write a lai, as the style was already out of fashion.
Six manuscripts contain all of Machaut’s works, and were collected and organized by Machaut himself. The originals are beautifully illustrated and belonged to important patrons, like dukes and counts and such.
His La Messe de Notre Dame Mass is the earliest known complete Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the Ite missa est movement that went away post-Tridentine Council, leaving the priest to say it privately after that). It’s possible that Machaut wrote other Masses that were less well documented, because parts appear in collections with other composers’ works, and only his own efforts to document his own work preserved the information that they were his. At any rate, the Notre Dame may have been intended for the Rheims cathedral, or perhaps as a votive Mass in Mary's honor. It’s not all the same style—the Gloria and Credo are conductus-style and the others are isorhythmic tenors based on plainsong Mass chants.
He wrote a secular work called Dit de la harpe, where the 24 virtues of his lady love are equated with each of the 24 strings of the harp. (Modern harps have more strings than medieval harps.) He considered the harp the most perfect of all instruments and occasionally wrote harp and voice versions of the same music.
He occasionally used a style called hoqueting (or hocketing), where the singers sound like they have the hiccups, in order to create an interesting rhythmic and nearly percussive texture. In hoqueting, voices alternate in little chirps in rapid succession, like a kind of vocal leap frog. The style was found in sacred music in the 13th and 14th century, but never really caught on even then. Machaut wrote a piece called “David Hoquetus” for three voices, so he thought it was interesting, at least. In that piece, Machaut used a chant, sung in a regular rhythm by the lowest voice, and then let the upper two voices dance around it in hoquet.
When Machaut died in 1377, many composers wrote elegies lamenting his loss. Later, musicologists would cite Machaut as the pivotal composer who changed music from Medieval music into Renaissance. So even if you’ve never heard of him, the music you love best wouldn’t have been possible without him.
“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981
“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson, Pelican Books, Baltimore, 1960
“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000
“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1965
“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1943
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton, New York, 2010