The Kennedy Center

Machaut Guillaume


Guillaume de Machaut was a composer of the Middle Ages, with his four-voice Mass of Notre Dame viewed as the model for medieval counterpoint.  His extensive work of songs and poetry dominated the fourteenth century, including 400 poems, 235 ballades, plus roundeaux, virelais, lais, complaintes, and chanson royales.
Born in the Rheims area of Champagne in 1300, Machaut became known in 1323 as secretary of John of Luxembourg, a position leading to travel for political events and battles. After John's death in battle in 1346 Machaut went on to serve kings and other royalty, and was charged with tasks as important as accompanying English war hostages. He survived a century of wars and plagues, spending his later years composing until his death in 1377.
Machaut is viewed as an avant garde composer due to his position within the early Ars Nova, a new, detailed rhythmic notation. Among his characteristics was song divided into two sections, with the tenor tune stated twice in each but in the final section at twice the speed. Although a cleric, the works where Machaut received most acclaim were secular. Other than religious Latin motets and poems invoking the horrors of war, most of his poems were about courtly love and its pleasure and pain.
In the established forms, Machaut made subtle changes to meter and rhyme scheme for dramatic presentation. Yet his polyphonic ballades and roundeaux were innovative, expanding song length and introducing more complex textures. He achieved a natural combination of words with music. 
The end of the lineage of trouveres, and with it the development of the monophonic art song, Machaut acted decisively to refine the emerging polyphonic songs form ballade and rondeaux, which were to become the dominant fixed forms for following generations.