Machaut II: Poetry in music

While writing the first Machaut article, the fact that this is a Machaut anniversary year of sorts never entered my thoughts. I was reminded only later, and although Machaut's birth year is an approximation, that should not prevent him from having a celebration. I forgot my own ten year wedding anniversary this year too, and so did my wife. Well, that is enough on the subject of forgetfulness, or perhaps on the fortuitous aptness of this series. The principle of poetry in music is central to general melodic conception as I have outlined it, and is a fundamental aspect of the centrality of the song per se. As a towering master of what I have termed "simultaneous genesis" of poetry & music, orienting such a discussion around Machaut can help both to illuminate his historical stature as well as the shadows of the principle itself.

First of all, it is clear that Machaut is unique in this area. Before the "rediscovery" of early music itself, Machaut was already regarded as one of the finest early French poets. His nonmusical output is easily substantial enough to secure him a historical reputation. As a composer, he is the unchallenged master of his era. There is no other person about whom one can say both things. It is also relatively straightforward to rationalize this fact. One can argue that continued specialization following Machaut's life contributed to the impracticality of one person excelling in both areas. The fine Ars Subtilior chansons, which show important continuity with the end of Machaut's own output, seem to have been more of a collaborative effort. No one composer stands out, and we know that in at least some cases the composer & poet were different individuals. It was Eustache Deschamps, a non-composer albeit linked to music, who was the outstanding French poet of this subsequent generation. The case of Dufay is as murky, since he may have written some or many of his texts, but had no substantial poetic reputation in any case. As the Renaissance gets fully underway, Renaissance chansons offer less & less poetry by their own composers, preferring instead Petrarch (Machaut's Italian contemporary!), Tasso et al. Turning to the era before Machaut, survival of sources becomes a major factor. Several troubadours evidently wrote songs of tremendous singular merit, but survival is always haphazard and frequently divests lyrics from music. For all his excellence, we must recognize that Machaut was in the right place at the right time to do what he did. Vernacular poetry, let alone musical settings of it, was still relatively new, at least as high art.

Of course, the entire discussion thus far neglects the basic fact that, in some sense, poetry is music. It has its rhythm, its scansion, its resolutions/rhymes. When spoken aloud, it has its play of sound. Indeed, traditional bardic poetry was sung, so we must further note that Machaut's oeuvre came after poetry became more distinct from music as art. I am not even able to offer a history of poetry in any detail, but there were distinct poetic genres at least by Classical times, while sung poetry coexisted in various ways. Machaut's lais come at the end of a long & poorly preserved narrative tradition of this type, and much of his other poetry has connections with the vernacular "awakening" surrounding the troubadours. I have called Machaut the last of the trouvères before, and much of his success rests in an ability to retain continuity with earlier lyric traditions while employing more technically advanced music. Again, my lack of knowledge of non-musical poetry impedes the discussion, but the issue is not singing poems per se so much as it is notating music for them using the most advanced technical constructs. The Catholic Church with its theoretical emphasis, suspicion of paganism, and increasingly remote Latin constructions was instrumental in creating a situation in which one can draw such a distinction so clearly. Even if most poetry to this point in history had been implicitly musical in some sense, Machaut's was explicitly musical in a refined theoretical sense.

Here we must give priority to Machaut the composer, using his own poetry as material, with the resulting simultaneity leading to a directness of conception & expression which is too often undermined by indistinctly phrased & articulated performances. That subsequent generations would have used this directness as a touchstone, if decreasingly so, is evident enough and at least partially illuminates my ideas on articulation. Moreover, the substance of the poetry provides fine material indeed, including interior rhythmic correspondences and phonetic coloring of lines, not to mention the textual semantics itself. Machaut's chansons reflect the fixed forms of poetry as well as the melismatic style of plainchant which thoroughly conditioned music theory. That by the later 16th century, such an approach to text was considered "barbaric" nearly goes without saying. The styles forged in that time are still the standards today, madrigalian styles of "word painting" and short notes on short syllables. Did Machaut not understand his own poetry, or was he merely powerless technically to give it the musical setting it deserved? This is obviously a silly question, preconditioned by the idea of constant musical affect, a concept which was discussed extensively and mechanized specifically by Baroque composers, but was not absent in spirit from medieval music. It was simply different. Medieval music revels more in the power of melody itself, and indeed it is the integrity of Machaut's texts which allows him to pursue more exotic polyphonic settings. It is the lexical organization of text and its articulation which provide a context for melody and its elaboration, even if melismatic passages act more by way of ornament or pregnant pause than illustration. The fixed forms are then the constraint against which melodic form and its perception can be conditioned.

By setting his own poetry to music, Machaut removed it from the purview of later composers. Composers returned to his Italian contemporary Petrarch again & again, because no setting could be definitive and so they could readily update the music to fit the fashions of the era. Machaut has frozen himself in a time, and through our eyes can seem crystalline indeed. His eloquence in verse is matched by his eloquence in both melody & harmony, and indeed his music has an evident poetic quality even in instrumental performance. Machaut was responsible for making the Ars Nova real with his eloquence, as the stiffness of his immediate predecessors is nowhere to be found in his music. He is the principle of "poetry in music" personified, fluid & resonant, synthesizing his time with the past and catapulting it into the future.

Administrivia: Next column in three weeks, to coincide with my family getting out of school for the Summer.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb