Guillaume de Machaut - BiographyGuillaume de Machaut was by far the most prestigious composer of his day and perhaps the first composer to lift music to an artistic status. A learned priest and accomplished poet, Machaut took up and developed the old trouvère song forms. Following troubadour tradition he wrote his own texts for his songs. His accessible and very beautiful music is representative of the "Ars Nova" style, which he enriched in many ways, not least in his rhythmic innovations. Machaut produced both secular and liturgical music- ballades, rondeaux, and virelais, motets and Masses. To his writing he brought an expressiveness unknown in the "old art". With Machaut, music became not only a "new" art, but also a modern one.
Born near the year 1300, possibly in Rheims, very little is known of Machaut's first two decades, except that early in life he took holy orders (we do know that he never advanced to the priesthood). The Machauts may have derived their name from a town in Champagne.
From about 1323 to 1340, he was employed by the John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, Though Guillaume was awarded several benefices within the decade, his function at John's court seems to have been chiefly literary and scribal - his posts included almoner, notary, and secretary.
However, John fancied himself a rather dashing soldier, and dragged his secretary from one campaign to the next; Machaut's writings suggest that years of following John resulted in gout, general debility, and a bad eye. It is no wonder, then, that in 1337, Machaut traded in his other livings for the position of canon at Rheims Cathedral and bought a house nearby. In his later years this house was frequented by the great, including King Charles V himself.
After King John's death in 1346, Machaut continued to serve France's most illustrious nobility. In 1349 he took service with Charles II of Navarre, then he became a member of the musical household of Charles V, King of Navarre. At other times (there are not details) he probably served John II and John, Duke of Berry, and perhaps Peter I of Cyprus and Amadeus of Savoy.
One of the truly significant creative figures of the fourteenth century, Guillaume was greatly admired by the cognoscenti of his day for his poetic gift. It is as a composer, however, that he stands unchallenged as the greatest of his era, and must be regarded as one of the supreme creative musicians of all time. Although relatively little is known about Machaut's personal life, more than 130 of his musical works have survived, and the manuscripts speak eloquently for his creative genius. Guillaume can be seen as a pivotal figure that summed up the chief musical developments to his time and then looked ahead to new ones.
Machaut was a leading exponent of "Ars Nova", the "new art" that flourished in the late 1300s. The so-called "old art" - Gregorian melodies and plain chants - had been developed by the "Notre Dame" Gothic School of composers headed by Leonin and Perotin in the 12th century. "Ars Nova" in general - and Machaut in particular - built a new musical structure on these old foundations. The greatest single change effected by "Ars Nova" was in rhythm, which now acquired variety for the first time. Machaut was one of the first composers to use extensively a new technique in rhythm: the "isorhythmic" (or equal rhythm) device in which a rhythmic pattern of notes and rests was repeated at fixed points throughout a composition, sometimes in the tenor voice, sometimes in all the voice parts.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Machaut saw his music not as a mere prop for his verse, but as an art important in itself. Machaut's manuscripts are clear on this point, for he even established the sequence in which he wanted the works presented: the pure poetry first - seventeen titles, mostly of long works, prefaced by a special prologue; then the musical compositions by categories - lais, motets, ballades, rondeaux, virelais, the Mass and the "David" instrumental hocket.
Machaut is perhaps best remembered for his Mass - apparently written for Rheims Cathedral. It is not only a monumental work but also a landmark. Other Ars Nova musicians wrote isolated Mass movements, but Machaut's appears to have been the first Mass composed as such by one man - and there would be no other for a half century. It is not unified, like later polyphonic Masses, by being based on a single cantus firmus, but it is clear that Machaut meant it to be performed as one work. It is one of the earliest works in musical history in which the music suggests some of the emotional or spiritual content of the text. In the "Et Incarnatus Est" section, for example, the music broadens majestically to suggest the awe, mystery, and mysticism of the Virgin birth.
Guillaume de Machaut died in Rheims, on 13 April in the year 1377.
Contributed by Gifford, Katya