Saturday, August 15, 2009

~~~ Love and Death in the Year 1347 ~~~ The World of Guillaume de Machaut ~~~~~

In 1347, the Black Plague hit Europe. Guillaume de Machaut, the most famous poet and composer of his time, was 47 years old. Boccaccio would write in the Decameron how he and some friends escaped the plague by retreating to a house in the country. Machaut had been working for the recently deceased King John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, and he remained there during the plague times, preparing manuscripts of his work, in demand by the royalty and nobility of all Europe.

Machaut was the foremost proponent of a new and startling form of music, known as Ars Nova, the New Art. It was the first real phase of that revolutionary musical technique that originated in Europe and eventually spread throughout the world: Harmony.

Previously in Europe, and in all other musics of the world before they were influenced by European music, there was either only the melody played in unison with, perhaps, percussion, or there might be a single note played underneath throughout the whole song, like the drone note of the bagpipes. Classical Indian music still follows this second form. But in the 1200s century composers started to experiment with singing more than one note at a time, although at first perhaps only as simple parallel voices or other naive forms of harmony. In the 1300s, for the first time, composers began to create elaborate, organized compositions with two or more voices singing different lines carefully designed to complement each other: Counterpoint.

Looked at another way, vertically, this results in a series of shifting chords. The effects on human emotions of the way that these chords are chosen and put together in a musical composition has been refined over the centuries to the system that we use today, in every song you hear, everywhere. And Guillaume de Machaut was the first major proponent of the earliest form of this technique.

Machaut was also equally famous as a poet, and the genre he worked in was Courtly Love. In addition, musically he started off at the end of the period of Troubadors and Trouveres, who sang in the older tradition accompanyed only perhaps by a drone note and percussion, and who had sung tales of courtly love for centuries in the banquet halls of the kings of Europe.

Courly Love, of course, is that tradition of forbidden love of a courtier for a lady who really should be out of his reach, such as the wife of his lord. The fact that this would utterly subvert the social order of the time and place the life of the lover in mortal peril gave it an illicit thrill that made it the most popular theme of popular art for centuries. The love of Lancelot and Guinevere and the destruction that this wrought for the court of King Arthur is these days the most famous story remembered from this tradition.

Machaut was a tuneful composer who entertains the popular ear. He also composed one of the first set-piece masses, as the Ars Nova technique began to be used in church music. Pope John XXII wrote annoyed letters asking what the hell was up with all the extra notes.

Machaut was the most famous artist of his time. His face is recognizable in a number of portraits (that isn't him above), and Chaucer, a generation or two later, treasured his expensive copy of Machaut's works.

When he was past middle age, it seems, he was still so famous that he lived a life much like a modern superstar. A beautiful young woman wanted so much to have the ultimate accolade, a love song addressed to her written by the most famous poet and songwriter of Europe, that she became his mistress. Machaut was plenty pleased until one day he got wind of the unflattering accounts of his lovemaking that the young lady was amusing her friends with.

Dame, je sui cilz qui weil endurer
vostre voloir, tant com porray durer
My Lady, I am the one who wants to endure your will.
and for as long as I may live

mais ne cuit pas que longuement l'endure
sans mort avoir quant vous m'estes si dure
but I do not believe that I will endure it for long
without dying, since you are so harsh to me

que vous voles qu'ensus de vous me traie.
sans plus veioir la tres grant biaute vraie
that you want me to withdraw far away from you.
without seeing any longer the very great beauty

de vo gent corps qui tant a de valour
que vous estes des bonnes la millour
of your lovely body, which has so much worth.
for you are of all good ladies the best

Las! einsi ay de ma mort exemplaire.
Mais la doleur qu'il me convendra traire
Alas! Thus I have the model of my death.
But the pain which I must endure

douce seroit, se un tel espoir avoie
qu'avant ma mort par vo gre vous revoie.
will be sweet, if I have such an expectation
that before I die I see you again, by your leave

Dame, et se ja mes cuers riens entreprent
dont mes corps ait honneur n'avancement
My Lady, if ever my heart should undertake anything
of which I may have the honour and profit

de vous venra, com lonteins que vous soie.
car ja sans vous que j'aim tres loyaument
ne sans Amours emprendre nel saroie
you will be the inspiration, however far away you be.
for never without you, who I love very loyally.
nor without Love, could this be undertaken


  1. thank you for opening up this page of history for me, tv.

    I learn so much from you, and so easily too!

  2. I hope this is not some attempt to remake me in someone else's image