Guillaume de Machaut is not exactly a household name. As you read this article, you are going to hear some music that will probably strike you as quite strange. This is because Guillaume de Machaut is a liminal figure; his life and work straddle two eras. The medieval is passing away and the Renaissance is looming. Now, as any musicologist or historian knows, it is never possible to demarcate historical periods with precision. Nobody went to bed in the “Baroque” and woke up in the “Classical”. These terms are categories that help us to deal with history – that is all that they are. However, de Machaut is an interesting case, because he lives at a time during which music separates from poetry, secular splits from spiritual, state from church, body from soul.
Up until the period in question (the 14th century), poetry and music lived together in one man or woman. We see this in music of late antiquity, where the dissociation of words would have been inconceivable. It is after this time that all aspects of human life fragment. The integrated, vivid life of the medieval freeman fades away into the onrush of the machine, each man having a distinct “speciality”. Frankly, during the Renaissance, mankind begins a descent towards insect-like conformity, smallness and predictability. Our own era is the continuation of that. De Machaut stands out as one of the last, if already rather degraded, examples of the earlier way of life.
Who was he?
Guillaume was born around 1300 AD, near the city of Reims. If you don’t speak French, the true pronunciation of the word Reims will surprise you. The ancient city of Reims was, until the year of the abyss, 1789 AD, the spiritual centre of the French nation. The Christianization narrative of the Frankish tribes centres on this site. It’s also located in the region that gave us champagne. Guillaume clearly received an advanced education and was the canon of various important cathedrals including Verdun.
It is quite common for moderns (people like you and me) to sneer at the medieval world. We have a complacent belief that we know so much better. An easy way to disabuse yourself of this absurd idea is to take a look at the picture at the top of this article. That’s what you would see if you approached Reims Cathedral. It took about a century to build and it was completed during Guillaume’s lifetime. Nothing that you or I have ever made, and nothing in any of the modern world’s glitzy, stupid Babylons, matches that.
Along with Reims, Guillaume’s name is tightly associated with a style of music that emerged in the 14th century. Ars Nova (Latin for “New Art”) took hold in Southern France and Burgundy and Italy during this time. Innovations in musical notation allowed for music to be written in more detail, which ensured more uniformity in performance. Ars Nova is almost entirely secular, the province of “professional performers”, entirely for entertainment. It’s important to remember that the concept of “entertainment”, so obvious to us, is something that evolved in time and place. This era gives us several musical forms such as the motet, an elaborate composition with lyrics (perfected, in my view, by Bruckner some centuries later), the ballade and the rondeau.
This music was innovative, bright, and optimistic. It should also be said that France and Italy in this period, for all their colour and ebullience, also show signs of decadence and indulgence, the disease that the prosperous are too eager to let in. The importance of that will become clearer towards the end of this article. The piece below is an example of Ars Nova. It’s a very soppy love song from a rather cloying suitor.
Another fact about his life that touches on our own times is that Guillaume was a survivor of one of the worst pandemics in man’s history, the Black Death. Some sources suggest that he made it by adhering to a self-isolation regimen. Incidentally, Shakespeare apparently wrote King Lear and Macbeth while under quarantine. During a short four years, 1347 AD – 1351 AD, a plague ended the lives of approximately half the population of the Europe in which Guillaume lived. Interestingly, the plague was brought to civilisation through biological warfare. The most advanced culture on earth at the time, China, had already suffered an onslaught from the Mongol horde. After this, the Mongols turned west. The horde launched infected corpses into the city of Caffa in the Crimea. From there, it spread like a fire through dry grass. The cheerful frivolity and optimism of the earlier part of the century gave way to the abyss.
This crisis accelerated the demise of the medieval world, because the huge death toll disrupted all social and economic relations that had existed prior. It drove people mad (understandably), it sundered the organic links between classes. Interestingly enough, there was not a total collapse. People seem to have got on with it and picked up the pieces. This is in stark contrast to the effects of plague in the Middle East and Asia, where the rather tedious and customary mass slaughters we’ve spoken about before seemed to have abounded.
It is hard for us to imagine this. And thankfully, we don’t have to imagine it now. The crisis through which we are now living is not comparable. But it is useful for us to reflect on how people in the past responded to larger, more frightening crises than our own. While we moderns brawl over groceries, history condemns us. Guillaume wrote the following piece in the latter years of his life, having lived through horror that exceeds any tawdry Hollywood film. It’s called Messe de Notre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) and it is a setting of the Latin liturgy for polyphonic choir. It speaks for itself: