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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