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Hyperion Records

CDA67727 - Machaut: Songs from Le Voir Dit
The anatomy of Man and Woman (Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Ms65/1284 f14v) by Pol de Limbourg (dc1416)
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67727

Recording details: July 2012
Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: October 2013
DISCID: 5B0F1909
Total duration: 64 minutes 26 seconds

'Le Voit Dit is considered the masterpiece of the 14th-century French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut. Whether or not it is a 'true' or autobiographically accurate tale, as the title implies, the nine songs embedded in Machaut’s anthology of verse and music speak plaintively and in a personal way of the pains and pleasures of love. Hauntingly and mellifluously sung by the four (but sometimes solo) voices of the Orlando Consort, this music still sounds as flavoursome as it must have done 650 years ago' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Here is a project for which Machaut fans have been waiting for a long time … this is an important and rewarding album that any lover of Medieval music will want to own' (International Record Review)

Songs from Le Voir Dit

The Orlando Consort performs the music of Machaut, the most significant French poet and composer of the fourteenth century. Sometimes described as ‘the last of the trouvères’ because of his dual talents as poet and musician, Machaut built on past traditions yet spearheaded a new school of lyric composition. In the field of literature, he developed several of the poetic forms and genres that dominated for generations to come. His impact on the musical life of his age was equally profound; he is closely associated with the new style of polyphonic love-song that became so popular in the fourteenth century, and today is considered the supreme representative of the Ars nova musical tradition that revolutionized composition and notation in that period.

Livre dou Voir Dit (‘Book of the True Tale’) is Machaut’s masterpiece. By its very title, the tale purports to be autobiographical: it relates a supposedly recent episode in the ageing poet-composer’s life, his love affair with a lady some forty years his junior.


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Guillaume de Machaut (c1300–1377) is considered now, as he was in his own day, the most significant French poet and composer of the fourteenth century. Sometimes described as ‘the last of the trouvères’ because of his dual talents as wordsmith and musician, Machaut built on past traditions yet spearheaded a new school of lyric composition. In the field of literature, he developed several of the poetic forms and genres that dominated for generations to come. His impact on the musical life of his age was equally profound; he is closely associated with the new style of polyphonic love-song that became so popular in the fourteenth century, and today is considered the supreme representative of the Ars nova musical tradition that revolutionized composition and notation in that period.

Machaut enjoyed the patronage of some of the ruling families of medieval Europe. For some thirty years he served Jehan of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, whose famously heroic demise at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 is recounted by Machaut’s contemporary Jehan Froissart in his chronicle of the Hundred Years War. Through his late master Machaut enjoyed close contacts with the French royal family, especially Jehan’s daughter, Bonne, and her husband, King Jehan II of France (reigned 1350–64), their offspring, the future Charles V and Jehan, Duke of Berry, a great connoisseur of the arts, and their son-in-law Charles of Navarre. Machaut’s relationships with the great and the good are reflected in the large legacy of works he bequeathed, which includes several lengthy narrative poems called dits, many lyric poems, an unparalleled corpus of love-songs, as well as motets and a setting of the Mass. Machaut’s status as poet-composer in his own day led to eager demand for copies of his works amongst the elite, and, in his own lifetime and soon after, a series of sumptuous anthologies was produced in Paris to satisfy this demand; several of these books survive today in the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and other libraries. Amongst the owners of books of Machaut were members of the ruling Valois dynasty and their family and political associates at home and abroad, including Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy, Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, the turbulent Gaston ‘Febus’ of Foix, and the King and Queen of Aragon. Lesser aristocrats equally aspired to possess copies; books of Machaut, it seems, became highly desirable commodities in the late fourteenth century.

If we are to believe the author’s own comments in his Livre dou Voir Dit (Book of the True Tale), by the time he wrote that work in the late 1360s, Machaut was regularly pestered for copies of his works. This mature dit is often considered Machaut’s masterpiece, and it certainly seems this was a project close to his heart. By its very title, the tale purports to be autobiographical: it relates a supposedly recent episode in the ageing poet-composer’s life, his love affair with a lady some forty years his junior. He names her, enigmatically, ‘Toute Belle’ (All Beautiful) but conceals her identity in an anagram, in which scholars have seen the name of a certain contemporary noblewoman, Peronelle d’Armentières.

Although other of Machaut’s dits similarly treat the travails of love and cast the author in a leading role, the Voir Dit is distinctive in several ways. The author maintains the tale was written, at the lady’s request, around the existing letters and lyrics exchanged by the lovers. Scholarship has long been divided over Machaut’s claims regarding the work’s veracity but a compelling case has recently been made for its enclosing more than a grain of truth. The wealth of specific, and often spurious, details contained in the letters and the author’s apparent mis-ordering of these exchanges, together with many references to historical personages and known events all combine to suggest this represents more than pure fiction.

One aspect where Machaut was certainly economical with the truth, however, concerns certain of the lyrics and songs that are scattered throughout the work. The art of lyric composition lies at the heart of the tale. The lady first approaches our author, via an intermediary, with a request that he should train her in the craft of composing poetry and song. In the epistolary exchange that ensues, Machaut, the admired master poet-composer, instructs his young disciple in this gentle art. Over sixty lyrics pass between the two lovers over the course of the story, and these play a central role in the seduction process and in the subsequent unfolding of the love affair. Especially interesting for us today are the comments and insights regarding the production of these items found in the accompanying narrative and letters. Most of the lyrics and songs, variously attributed to Machaut or his lady, are presented as if newly composed, but in nine cases, including four by the lady, this is manifestly untrue because these items already figure in the first of the Machaut manuscripts, copied a decade or so earlier. Those items aside, the poetic efforts attributed to the lady have been judged rather less sophisticated in form and content than her master’s; whether or not these were indeed the work of a second poet or composed by Machaut remains a moot point.

The nine songs that figure in the Voir Dit, on the other hand, were all evidently the work of Machaut himself: they are attributed to him in the tale and are found with their music amongst his other musical works in the surviving manuscripts. The first to appear is Plourés dames (Ballade 32), which Machaut probably wrote during the long illness he tells us he suffered over the winter of 1361 until the summer of the following year. Thinking he would succumb to this malady, he wrote this mournful song as his ‘testament’, and later sends it with his first letter to Toute Belle. He asks his charge to learn it since it isn’t difficult and he is most pleased with it. The song is in ballade form, the most expansive of the short ‘fixed’ forms favoured by poets and composers at the time, and one Machaut used for his more ambitious songs. Its text reflects the author’s sorrowful state: it begs ladies, whose honour he has served so tirelessly, to weep on his behalf and to dress in black to mark his imminent demise. The musical setting, like that of Ne que on porroit (Ballade 33) and Se pour ce muir (Ballade 36), is elaborate and sophisticated in style. Its texted melody, heard in the upper voice, is characterized by extensive melismas and is accompanied by an untexted duo that provides rich (and occasionally spicily dissonant) contrapuntal support. This song shares with Ne que on porroit three distinctive melodic motifs that are often heard in sequence: a short initial statement; a brief ascent that is often coupled with a downward leap; and a sinuous, melismatic descent, which Machaut had already explored in several earlier songs.

Plourés dames and Ne que on porroit may seem to us remarkably similar in many ways but Machaut evidently felt he had created a quite distinctive, novel work with the latter. Ne que on porroit is certainly unusual for its motivic density and its constant repetition and variation, but it may have been the recurrent, striking descending leaps that led the author to remark he had designed it in ‘the German style’ (‘a la guise d’un res d’alemagne’). He concluded it was the best thing he had written for a long while, declaring its lower parts are ‘as sweet as unsalted gruel’. He implored his mistress to learn it exactly as written, with nothing added or taken away, and to perform it with ‘long measure’, meaning, perhaps, with a stately tempo; finally, he advised it could be performed on organ, cornemuse, or other instruments, since this reflects its true nature.

The melismatic descent and downward leap motifs that feature prominently in Plourés dames and Ne que on porroit also permeate Se pour ce muir; the second of these also appears in modified guise in both Dis et sept, cinq (Rondeau 17) and in Dame, se vous n’avez aperceü (Rondeau 13). Such intricate sharing of musical material between these various songs lends rich insight into some of the materials preoccupying our composer in the early 1360s. The lyrics of certain of the Voir Dit songs betray a similar principle of recycling in Machaut’s compositional process. The text of Ne que on porroit grows out of material presented earlier in the narrative, while that of Dame, se vous n’avez aperceü is a collage of elements formerly used by the poet for some of his earlier lyric poems. In the case of Sans cuer dolens (Rondeau 4) the borrowing is wholesale: the author tells us he wrote this on the road after parting from his lady, but, in reality, he lifted it, ready-made, from his existing collection of poems and songs, simply modifying very slightly its text.

The remaining three songs are each striking in their own way. Longuement me sui tenus (Lai 13/18) illustrates the form of the lai, which Machaut supposedly perfected. The lai, although archaic, continued to be revered in the fourteenth century as the most challenging and virtuosic of the lyric forms; Machaut was apparently amongst the last to set the form to music. These large-scale works were not just a challenge for the poet-composer, but also for the (usually) solitary singer who performs them: stamina, control, and endurance is required to deliver the twenty-four unaccompanied stanzas, as well as expressive powers to engage the audience throughout this technical tour de force. Puis qu’en oubli (Rondeau 18) is not explicitly named in the Voir Dit but it is included here because it seems a good candidate for a song that is alluded to in one of the letters. At his lady’s request, Machaut adds accompanying voices to a melody he had earlier supplied for one of her poems; this successive compositional approach may well account for the unusually low register and the rather awkward lines and chordal effect of the lower parts of Puis qu’en oubli. Finally, Quant Theseus / Ne quier veoir (Ballade 34) is a song of which Machaut was especially proud. The lyrics are the product of a competitive lyric ‘joust’ between Machaut and a certain Thomas Paien, one of the composer’s real-life peers at the cathedral of Rheims, which forms an interlude in the story. In the narrative, Machaut laments how Thomas composed his own lyric (Quant Theseus) first, thereby taking ‘all the grease from the pot’ in terms of poetic conceits and imagery. Machaut endeavoured to surpass Thomas’s effort by providing a greater number of extravagant images, many from classical mythology. But from his comments to his lady, it seems that where Machaut considered he had trumped his opponent was in the musical setting he crafted for the two poems. Quant Theseus / Ne quier veoir is unusual in its scoring for two equal texted voices over two accompanying lower voices. The novelty of this song and its lyrics may explain why these were imitated and quoted by a variety of Machaut’s contemporaries. Certainly, Machaut used his ‘True Tale’ not only to recount a love story and to play at the boundaries of fact and fiction, but also to showcase his talents as innovative composer of love-song.

Yolanda Plumley © 2013

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