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Guillaume DE MACHAUT (c1300 - 1377): Secular songs

[I] "Songs from Le voir dit"
The Orlando Consort
rec: July 2 - 5, 2012, Loughton (Essex), Parish Church of St John the Baptist
Hyperion - CDA67727 (© 2013) (64'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Dame, se vous n'avez aperceü, rondeau a 3 [13]; Dis et sept, cinq, rondeau a 3 [17]; Longuement me sui tenus (La lay de Bon Esperance) a 1 [13/18]; Ne que on porroit, ballade a 3 [33[; Plourés dames, ballade a 3 [32]; Puis qu'en oubli, rondeau a 3 [18]; Quant Theseus/Ne quier veoir, ballade a 4 [34]; Sans cuer dolens, rondeau a 2 [4]; Se pour ce muir, ballade a 3 [36]

Matthew Venner, alto; Mark Dobell, Angus Smith, tenor; Donald Greig, baritone

[II] "The Dart of Love"
The Orlando Consort
rec: Jan 21 - 24, 2013, Loughton (Essex), Parish Church of St John the Baptist
Hyperion - CDA68008 (© 2015) (64'59")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

DENIS LE GRANT (?-1352) (attr): Se je chant mains que ne suelh, chace a 3; Guillaume DE MACHAUT: Ay mi, dame de valour, virelai a 1 [3]; Dame, je sui cils/Fins cuers dous/Fins cuers dous, motet a 3 [11]; Helas, tant ay doleur et peinne, ballade a 2 [2]; Il m'est avis qu'il n'est dons de nature, ballade a 4 [22]; Lasse! comment oublieray/Se j'aim mon loial amy/Pour quoy me bat mes maris?, motet a 3 [16]; Phyton, le mervilleus serpent, ballade a 3 [38]; Pour ce que tous mes chans fais, ballade a 2 [12]; Quant en moy/Amour et biauté parfaite/Amara valde, motet a 3 [1]; Rose, lis, printemps, verdure, rondeau a 4 [10]; S'Amours ne fait par sa grace adoucir, ballade a 2 [1]; Sans cuer, m'en vois/Amis dolens/Dame, par vous, ballade a 3 [17]; Se vous n'estes pour mon guerredon nee, rondeau a 3 [7]

Matthew Venner, alto; Mark Dobell, Angus Smith, tenor; Donald Greig, baritone


Guillaume de Machaut is a monument in music history. We probably know more about him than about any other composer from his time. His extant oeuvre is pretty large; he himself looked after his output which was collected in manuscripts entirely devoted to his own compositions. Moreover, as he was already famous in his lifetime they were in great demand among the elites. After his death anthologies were produced some of which have survived and are preserved in various libraries.

The present two discs deliver a nice survey of the various genres to which Machaut contributed. I don't know if it is the ambition of the Orlando Consort to record Machaut's entire oeuvre. That would be nice as the interpretations are promising, although they raise a fundamental question. I'll return to that at the end of this review. Let us first turn to the programmes on these discs.

The work-list in New Grove lists a number of genres. It opens with Machaut's only mass, the Messe de Nostre Dame. Then follow the motets: Machaut composed 23 of such works. Some of these are sacred on a Latin text, but others are in French and have a secular content. It is only later that the term motet is almost exclusively used for sacred music. Three specimens of this genre are included in the second disc. Quant en moy is for three voices each of which has a different text: "When Love entered my heart that first time", "Love and perfect beauty make me doubt" and "Very bitter". The latter is the only text of the tenor and is in Latin; it is of liturgical origin. The other two motets are the only ones with a secular tenor in Machaut's oeuvre: all three parts have a secular text in French.

The next category is devoted to the ballades: 42 have come down to us, scored for one to four voices and all on a French text. The ballade was a relatively new genre in Machaut's time; the first date from about 1340 and this genre would remain one of the main forms of secular music until the mid-15th century. "In its standard late medieval shape the ballade text falls into three stanzas, sharing the same metrical and rhyme scheme and ending with the same refrain. The music for each stanza follows the overall pattern I–I–II" (New Grove). It seems that Machaut rated this form very highly as the collections with his works open with specimens from this genre. The liner-notes to these discs point out that he took some liberties in his treatment of the ballade. Anne Stone ("The Dart of Love") states, for instance, that the ballade No. 1, S'Amours ne fait, "has the unusual feature that the poetic lines of each section are set to identical rhythms, though different pitches. (...) The result is an extremely unified rhythmic surface with markedly audible rhythmic recurrences (...). This is the most elaboratedly constructed of all Machaut's ballades (...)". Notable for another reason is Sans cuer, m'en vois, the only ballade in Machaut's oeuvre with three different texts, sung simultaneously by the three voices; moreover, the text also has the character of a dialogue.
Notable is that the refrain of Pour ce que tous mes chans fais, "Se je chant mains que ne sueil", is borrowed from a song with that title which is attributed to Denis Le Grant, master of the French royal chapel in 1349 and Bishop of Senlis from 23 December 1350 until his death. This piece is the only known composition from his pen and is called a chace, a three-voice canonic work that often features texts about hunting.

Next in the list are the rondeaux of which we have 22 from Machaut's pen, scored for two to four voices. It is a form which had already established itself in the early 13th century. "The essential features are the presence of a final refrain which occupies the entire two-section melody, and the anticipation of the first part of this refrain in the second line" (New Grove). Some of Machaut's rondeaux were particularly popular: Se vous n'estes pour mon guerredon nee has been preserved in ten sources outside of Machaut's own complete works collections. It was also the subject of arrangement by other composers. Others were quoted in new compositions.

Machaut's extant oeuvre includes 33 virelais; most of them are for one voice, seven are for two voices and just one for three. "Its musical structure is essentially ABBA, regardless of subtleties of rhythm and metre in the superimposed text" (New Grove). It could have found its origin in 11th-century Arabic song forms in North Africa and Spain. It is closely connected to dance but as Machaut was both the author of the texts and the composer of the music he was able to create a strong connection between the two. Due to the fact that most of them are for one voice they have a more declamatory character than polyphonic pieces. The most famous virelai is Douce dame jolie; the second disc includes another specimen of this genre: Ay mi, dame de valour.

Also for one voice are the lais; 19 from Machaut's pen are known. Some include indications that polyphony may be created by singing stanzas in canon. Again this is an old genre; Machaut's lais belong the last specimens. "The stanzas – if the poem can be divided in that way – are each in a different form and therefore have different music" (New Grove). Machaut preferred lais of twelve stanzas; Longuement me sui tenus ("Songs from Le voir dit") has 24.

This piece is part of Le voir dit. The word dit refers to a specific genre of poetry and music. These are long autobiographical poems, each comprising up to 9,000 lines, most of them without music. They offer us much information about Machaut's life, although - as Yolanda Plumley states in her liner-notes - he was "certainly economical with the truth", at least in the dit from which the Orlando Consort has taken those parts which the composer did set to music. In this dit he made use of the various forms which have already been mentioned: four ballades, four rondeaux and Longuement me sui tenus, also known as La lay de Bon Esperance.

As I already indicated this repertoire and its performance raise a fundamental question. In most of the pieces for two or more voices only some of the parts are texted. How should the remaining parts be performed? The most obvious solution seems to use instruments. The discography includes quite a number of recordings of that kind. Many lovers of Machaut's music may have become acquainted with his oeuvre through that sort of interpretations. However, some experts believe that polyphonic secular music of the 14th and 15th centuries was not performed with a mixture of voices and instruments. One of the first to express the idea that untexted parts should be vocalized was Christopher Page who has practised this concept with his ensemble Gothic Voices. On these two discs the Orlando Consort follows this same concept. If you have not heard it before it may be something you have to get used to. It would have been useful if the booklets would have paid some attention to this important aspect of performance practice.

Obviously it is of the utmost importance that the voices blend well. That is mostly the case here but sometimes I was a bit put off by the vibrato of Donald Greig which is all too notable, for instance, in Sans cuer dolens ("Songs from Le voir dit"). But that doesn't take anything take away from my admiration for the ensemble, especially considering that singing songs - some of which are of quite some length - without any accompaniment is a demanding task. On top of that some songs are rhythmically complicated; the texts also need to be clearly audible. As one may expect the singers observe what is assumed to be the historical pronunciation of French.

Those who have a special interest in this kind of music and particularly in Machaut should investigate these two discs and any further recordings in this project.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

The Orlando Consort

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