Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Guillaume de Machaut’s Medieval Love Songs

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Guillaume de Machaut, the master poet-composer of fourteenth-century France, served for many years as the canon of the great Gothic cathedral at Reims, where the kings of the realm were crowned. Machaut’s most famous creation, the Messe de Nostre Dame, has a singular place in musical history, because it is an early attempt at creating a comparably sublime edifice in sound—a six-movement work in four-part polyphony, lasting well over half an hour, in which austere, granitic harmony is set against delicate contrapuntal play and spiky rhythmic motion. This Mass is, in fact, the oldest extant piece of its type to have been attributed to a single composer. When, the other day, the San Francisco-based vocal ensemble Chanticleer sang it at Grace Cathedral, on Nob Hill, a suitable atmosphere of awe accumulated.

Yet the Mass is ultimately not Machaut’s most striking achievement. Superbly constructed as the score is, it does not mark a leap beyond other, anonymous masses of the period. Chanticleer augmented the movements of the Mass with a generous selection of Machaut’s works in secular forms, for which he wrote both texts and music: ballades, rondeaux, lais, virelays, and motets. In these, we are confronted with something more modern—and more elusive—than a monumental meditation on liturgical ritual. Machaut’s subtle, self-aware disquisitions on courtly love rely on the codes of a long-vanished society. Their music adheres to austere formulas. At the same time, they convey enough sensuous truth that, in the right hands, they speak with uncanny immediacy.

The text for Machaut’s rondeau “Rose, liz, printemps,” which four Chanticleer singers performed at Grace, praises a woman in florid terms: “Rose, lily, spring, verdure / Flower, balm, and most sweet fragrance / Belle, you surpass them in sweetness.” The music adds a rapturous complexity, as the intertwining parts seem to waver between 3/4 time and 6/8 time, and syncopations enliven the texture. In Chanticleer’s dulcet rendition, voices brushed against one another like roses swaying in a breeze. Across some six and a half centuries, a composer held an audience spellbound.

Machaut’s lasting fame resulted from a lucky conjunction of talent and power. Early on, he belonged to the court of John of Luxembourg, the King of Bohemia; in later years, he enjoyed connections to many members of the French royal family. He was thus in a position not only to write for high-ranking patrons but also to arrange for the preservation of his manuscripts. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France possesses an enormous volume, of more than five hundred folios, containing almost all of Machaut’s output. Like many composers over the centuries, Machaut did not lack confidence. In a prologue to that tome, he portrays himself in dialogue with Nature, who tells him, “Your works will find more renown than others, / For there will be nothing in them to fault, / And thus they will be loved by all.”

Yet the ubiquitous “I” in Machaut’s writing should be treated with caution. This is one message of Elizabeth Eva Leach’s 2011 book, “Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician,” a revelatory study of the music and the poetry in tandem. No less than future singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Machaut deploys a rotating array of ersatz selves. Although some of his scenarios have a happy vibe—“Rose, liz” shivers with gentle ecstasy—he is very often trapped in perpetual longing for a woman out of reach. What’s more, that pining is deemed essential to the creative act. Poetry and music, Leach writes, become “the ultimate surrogate for erotic desire and means of achieving a serene life.”

Machaut’s aesthetic of sublimation is on display in his ballade “Riches d’amour,” a highlight of the Chanticleer program:

Rich in love and begging for a lover,
Poor in hope and graced with desire,
Full of misery and deprived of aid,
Far from mercy, famished for favor,
Devoid of all that could let me rejoice,
For the sake of love I am in fear of death,
Because my lady hates me and I adore her.

This tortuous series of rhetorical oppositions is filtered through classic gestures of lament: long melismas unfurl in circuitous stepwise patterns, generally tending downward. A second voice, called the tenor (the name for the grounding part in medieval polyphony), fills out the harmony with pinpoint precision. At Grace, Tim Keeler, Chanticleer’s music director, sang the upper part with ethereal wistfulness, and the tenor Matthew Mazzola provided resonant support. The dynamics grew softer as the piece went along, expressing self-abnegation in the face of failure.

At times, the intricacy of Machaut’s constructions becomes dizzying. Mazzola and the baritone Matthew Knickman joined the countertenors Gerrod Pagenkopf and Logan Shields to give a bracing account of the motet “De Bon Espoir,” which, in a structure typical of the period, incorporates three distinct layers. The top voice speedily runs through a twenty-seven-line poem that juggles allegorical concepts such as Hope, Memory, Desire, and Loyalty. The middle voice moves at a more deliberate pace through a contrastingly disconsolate fifteen-line text. Finally, the tenor intones fragments of a Gregorian chant, derived from Psalm 13 (“I have trusted in thy mercy”). As Jacques Boogaart observes in his edition of the Machaut motets, the use of the single Latin word Speravi (“I have hoped/trusted”) is ambiguous in isolation: it can also signify “I hoped (but do no longer).” The upper parts flesh out that alternation between hope and despair. One can see why Leach puts Machaut in the league of Dante, Petrarch, and Chaucer—none of whom were composers.

There is no clear consensus on how Machaut’s music should be sung. The discography is dominated by British groups that favor a pristine a-cappella approach: the Taverner Consort recorded the Mass in 1984, the Hilliard Ensemble surveyed the motets in 2004, and next year the recently retired Orlando Consort will issue the final installment of an eleven-volume Machaut edition, on the Hyperion label. In 1996, though, the Ensemble Organum staged a healthy disruption with a recording of the Mass that showed the influence of Eastern Orthodox chant—a raspier, freely ornamented sound. The renegade Flemish ensemble Graindelavoix renders the Mass almost as folk music from the steppes. Some groups sing with instruments, some without.

Chanticleer mediates among these various styles. For a time, this venerable ensemble, which began life in the bohemian San Francisco of the nineteen-seventies, settled into an overly polished professionalism. Under Keeler, who took over in 2020, it is reinforcing its early-music bona fides. In a program note, he cited scholarly guidelines for medieval performance, which allow for considerable freedom of ornamentation and improvisation. As a result, Chanticleer’s individual personalities showed through, whether in Andy Berry’s swaggering take on “Le Lay de Bonne Esperance” or in Vineel Garisa Mahal’s hints of classical Indian vocalism in the Mass. As a collective, the singers were sometimes choirboy-pure, sometimes huskier in tone. I also saw them perform at First Church in Berkeley, where they were joined by the instrumental ensemble Alkemie. Despite the characterful playing of the latter, I preferred the intimacy of the a-cappella outing.

As celebrated as Machaut was in his day, we don’t know when or where he was born or even precisely when he died. Yet his passing elicited the first significant memorial tribute from one composer to another. One F. Andrieu set “La mort” and “Machaut” as two-note sobbing gestures, bracketed by silence. In that moment, music transcends its point of origin and becomes an open-ended conversation across time. ♦

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