Machaut: Musings on centrality

Something I only idly followed, more through my wife than directly, was the outflowing of "Millennium lists" giving the most important people of the previous one thousand years. It was mostly something about which to chuckle, given that the lists were always dominated by twentieth century personalities, and weighted disproportionately to the current conceit of technology. Aside from people such as Madonna, there weren't many composers on the lists. That is really too bad, and clearly a reflection of the public's views on the diminishing relevance of music. Apparently Beethoven was on one of the big lists, and he is a good choice as the most recent epoch-shaping Western composer. However, as I casually remarked at the time, how can any list of that sort have any credibility when it omits Machaut? Okay, so it is an amusing question, given that most people have never heard of Machaut. Nonetheless, he was the first such epochal composer, and the most artistically dominant besides. There have been very few humans in any endeavor who have towered above their contemporaries the way Machaut did. This is the beginning of a disjointed & intermittent series of articles to explore that fact.

I have a brief biography and some recording recommendations online already, of course. This is the place for more esoteric thoughts. What of the idea of significant figures at all? Much of today's supposed intellectualism revolves around the idea of all opinions being equal, so presumably one should not prioritize in anything but a personal way. In the case of the notion of the masterpiece, and soon in the case of relativist epistemology in general, I show that one can only retain a lack of abstract priority if one postulates not only the equality of individual opinions but also that they do not interact. So how silly is the latter? We know that some things become more important, by one means or another, and the Millennium list people certainly did not let some rather obvious motivations toward political correctness take them so far as to say that their lists were impossible to make. Well, such a list probably is impossible to make, since it is so unspecific, but that is beside the point. The more specific framework here is, as usual, more-or-less time-independent in that we judge someone's stature relative to their contemporaries, and only follow that (maybe, with a certain conceit) by comparing people in multiple eras or traditions based on their relative dominance over their peers. If no one today has heard of them, that is a different thing (and maybe our fault).

So what of Machaut? Historical surveys have been updated, Hildegard has come out of nowhere to become a public figure, but somewhere in the resulting mix remains the basic fact that the medieval work a generally educated musician is most likely to know is Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame. Not so long ago, it may have been the only medieval work a classical musician would have known by name. This fact is an example of Machaut's centrality, and I am in no hurry to circumscribe that role. There are various factors which serve to shape Machaut's reputation. Some emphasize points of continuity: Machaut was a genius of both words & music, and one of the only great Western composers to write his own lyrics (one might compare him to Saint Thyagaraja of Carnatic music in this regard). This places him in the direct lineage of the troubadours and trouvères. Indeed, one can quite sensibly call Machaut the last of the trouvères, and of course their apotheosis. The beginning of Machaut's career coincided with the Ars Nova innovations, which brought both a more complicated rhythmic notation as well as a shift in harmonic priorities. Part of what makes Machaut's polyphony so magical relative to that of his contemporaries is his ability to unite the more flexible use of intervals in Ars Antiqua music with the rhythmic potential of the Ars Nova. These two basic facts, the simultaneous genesis of the lyrics and the incorporation of earlier harmonic possibilities, are what serve in the first place to endow Machaut's music with its fluidity & resonance.

If Machaut only represented continuity, he would not be a figure of such stature. When we speak of Machaut as the last of the trouvères, of course he was also the one who placed this secular poetry into such refreshing polyphonic settings. There were a few precedents for Machaut's polyphonic ballades et al., such as the rondeaux of Adam de la Halle and an isolated (but superb) polyphonic example by Lescurel, but it is no exaggeration to say that Machaut defined the genre. It is in this invention, especially in its proto-humanist union, that one can perceive the origin of the Renaissance in Machaut's work, and with it a thread which reaches to Italy and the circle of Landini in progressive Florence. Machaut's careful manuscript preparations also identify the "personal" artist, maybe even the Romantic artist. His poetry evokes personal images, of love & war, and of plague & hope. Through it all, Machaut's musical settings have a magical grace about them which transcends the sometimes "stuttery" quality that can contaminate Ars Nova interpretations. It is in Machaut's melodic union that one can perceive the flow of the music beneath the notation which sometimes seems to restrain it. And so it is in Machaut's super-luminous songs, able to catapult themselves across the chasm of time and feel real to us, which we are able to find the resourcefulness to reanimate the otherwise stiff music of his contemporaries.

Machaut's music has always been able to transcend in some way. It does not take much effort to pick it out from a program of early Ars Nova songs, nor does it take much to see who his younger contemporaries were emulating. In all of this, I have avoided the Mass. It is certainly seen as his monument, as his grandest work, but it is also less representative of what is the precious human grace of his songs. Modern recognition often goes in search of the large-scale work, something Machaut does offer, but I have become so cautious of grandiosity that I am also cautious of full-blown grandeur as it were. For the most part, he is Machaut the miniaturist, although not so miniature in some of the motets or especially in the lengthy lais. The latter represent one of Machaut's contradictions: Some of his largest works are some of his most old-fashioned, and of course their monophonic style seems even more remote to us. The point, though, is that Machaut towers above his contemporaries in all of these ways, and he does so with an evident humility. Accomplished poet & musician, composer of the largest form, composer of the smallest form, inventor of the polyphonic ballade, uniter of old & new harmony, the most old-fashioned in the lais, the most progressive in the Mass or late ballades, writer of the most complex counterpoint, writer of the simplest monophony... these are the faces of Machaut as artistic giant, as the musician who straddles not only the entire fourteenth century, but who also casts a shadow into the thirteenth & fifteenth centuries. Perhaps the twentieth century should appear on the list as well, as one can hardly help but marvel at his songs today.

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Todd M. McComb