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Messe de Notre Dame

composer
author of text

 
Despite its central importance (and no doubt because of it) the Mass was not the first focal point of polyphonic activity. Composers attended instead to those texts which belonged to a special and usually festal occasion – the words proper to a particular day in the Church year. However, individual sections of the Mass were set to music, leading eventually to paired settings of the Gloria and Credo or Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Machaut’s setting is sometimes cited as the earliest complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Ite). There were other complete settings more or less contemporary with Machaut, but little to link the separate portions musically; only their purpose establishes a unity. And while this is less true of Machaut’s work, which goes some way further towards the Renaissance ideal of a Mass in which the separate sections are musically balanced and linked, there is nonetheless a considerable difference in style between the Gloria–Credo pair and the remaining sections. But as Machaut himself presented the work as an entity, we would do well not to quibble with him.

The composer of a Mass faces two kinds of text – the one short, having the conciseness of poetry, the other extended and having more the lineaments of prose. Machaut honours these differences and employs two quite distinct techniques for them. The Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Ite are written as self-contained, abstract formations that would make sense even if played on instruments rather than sung, while the Gloria and Credo are constructed in accordance with the phrases of the text, in effect inventing a musical style to match the irregular patterns of prose, punctuating its lines with flourishes and occasionally halting to meditate on a name: ‘Iesu’ in the Gloria (twice) and ‘Maria virgine’ in the Credo. This latter style is derived from conductus, a syllabic method of ‘free’ composition, though Machaut does in fact use plainsong as a source for continuous melodic variation in these two sections.

The other dominant style is that of isorhythm, where the tenor part (quoting the original plainsong directly) is broken up into phrases of identical rhythmic patterns. These patterns may be quite short, as they mostly are here, or can be stretched over long periods (as they came to be in the late medieval motet). Machaut uses this technique to create larger patterns – articulations in sound of simple yet powerful symmetries. The upper voices are faster moving and more freely conceived (though they too show the influence of careful overall structuring) and take much delight in hockets – but despite our natural tendency to do the opposite, this music may perhaps best be listened to from the bottom upwards.

Machaut’s home town was Rheims and, despite travels abroad as secretary to John, Duke of Luxemburg and King of Bohemia, his relationship with the town and its cathedral may well have been lifelong, and he is known to have lived there from about 1340. Amongst other benefices he was installed as a canon of the cathedral in 1337 and contributed to a fund for the building of the Lady Chapel – for which very possibly his famous Mass ‘de Nostre Dame’ was composed.

from notes by Paul Hillier 1989

Recordings

Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame
CDA66358

Details

Movement 1: Kyrie
Track 1 on CDA66358 [5'46]
Movement 2: Gloria
Track 2 on CDA66358 [4'11]
Movement 3: Credo
Track 3 on CDA66358 [5'40]
Movement 4: Sanctus and Benedictus
Track 4 on CDA66358 [4'16]
Movement 5: Agnus Dei
Track 5 on CDA66358 [3'27]
Movement 6: Ite Missa est
Track 6 on CDA66358 [1'03]

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