- Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician
Celebration in 1977 of the 600th anniversary of Guillaume de Machaut’s death created a flurry of scholarly activity, which has quietly continued in the form of literary and musicological studies, editions and translations of texts, a comprehensive research guide, sound recordings, and online access to manuscripts and texts, but not until now a study encompassing all facets of the creative artist. Elizabeth Eva Leach has undertaken a holistic and interdisciplinary study, showing how Machaut’s music and poetry interact.
Leach establishes that very little documented evidence exists about Machaut as an historical figure. A few facts about his itinerant life as a court officer and about his ecclesiastical benefices are gleaned from self-presentation in his narrative works. It is, however, remarkable that, aware of the importance of his status as an author, he preserved his oeuvre of about four hundred poems in an orderly collection, in the codex Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1584, copied in the 1370s, and containing almost his total output of verse and music and two portraits of the poet himself.
Leach places her study in a frame of remembering/remembering to replace the dismembering Machaut’s work has suffered in the hands of scholars. As the historiographical survey in Chapter 2 shows, he has been recognized from the early twentieth century as a successor of the troubadours and trouvères. The combination of lyric and narrative forms with a first-person protagonist, and the notation and tonal aspects of his music have attracted particular attention. As a musicologist, Leach contends that the music, the more challenging part of Machaut’s work, is central. Returning to the manuscripts, she will ‘integrate musical readings and music’s reading of lyrics into thematic discussion of Machaut’s work in the round’ (p. 78).
Chapter 3, ‘Creation: Machaut Making’, begins with discussion of the corpus manuscript, the poetic inspiration of Nature and Love, and Boethius’s influence on Machaut’s thought. The necessary elements for successful creation are joy and sentement, ‘emotional authenticity’ (pp. 102, 123–28). Examples of texts, with translation, musical notation, and sometimes reproduction of a manuscript page form the basis of detailed discussion here and in subsequent chapters. Pairs of examples allow Leach to illustrate the important factor of adjacency in her interpretation.
Chapter 4, ‘Hope: Loving’, focuses on the essential tenet of Machaut’s courtly doctrine, that the lover–poet be governed, not by Desire, but by [End Page 230] reassuring Hope that leads ultimately to the lady’s granting of merci. Thus self-sufficient, the lover is distinguishable from the self-absorbed Boethius and the lover–dreamer of the Roman de la Rose.
Fortune, a negative force the poet combats by means of composition, is represented with traditional features. Her disruptive and deceitful behaviour finds expression in the music. A parallel is suggested between the opening stanza of the Complainte ‘Tieus rit au main …’ and Boeces, de Consolacion, Book II, meter i (pp. 225–26). Music, text, and the fascinating illustration of Fortune cranking her wheel, from Paris, BnF, MS fr. 1586, f. 30v (p. 222), interact very effectively.
The final chapter treats the poetic theme of death and Machaut’s own death. Guillaume’s balade ‘Plourés, dames, plourés vostre servant’, plays on the ambivalence of death caused by rejection in love and actual death (pp. 265–74). Although the balade is sad, Leach describes the music as ‘rather merry’ unless performed very slowly (p. 270). She rightly quashes any modern contentions that Machaut’s religious works, notably motets and the polyphonic mass, are out of place in the work of a medieval secular court poet. Deschamps’s double balade commemorating the poet, and his own balade ‘Je pren congié’ (pp. 304–12) precede an outline of Machaut’s influence and authority in music and poetry.
Translations of the French texts are generally exact. Occasionally a different word or nuance might fit: in...