Inspired by a Machaut Programme
Machaut seems a poet and a musician in equal measure, one of only a handful of figures to show equal mastery of these arts. I first heard his works attending a concert given by David Munrow in the seventies. It was a bleak winter day; the cold was bitter. And somehow the virelai music and poetry of Machaut seemed perfect and timeless. It had a somber bittersweet feeling to it. The music was haunting. On the surface it seemed simple and song-like, but listening to it again (and especially to a purely instrumental performance), the amazing geometric complexities of the works unfolded. Machaut regularly used a novel mirror approach in which a strophe proceeds A-B-C-D, and is then followed by a reversal, D-C-B-A. The effect is striking and introspective. The poetry follows courtly themes of his time, and the image of Douce dame jolie is a wonderful, easily approachable example. For our age, this will seem a simple love song. But to Machaut’s contemporaries it would have been understood to have the carefully constructed double sense of courtly love, a reference simultaneously to an affair of the heart and the adoration of the Virgin Mary. Machaut took religious orders and served in a number of ecclesiastical positions, most significantly as canon of the Cathedral of Rheims in Champagne. Still, much of Machaut’s writing takes the profane aspect to an extreme, as for instance in Le remède de Fortune, an extended poem with musical components, which tells the story of a courtly romance that proceeds suspiciously close to consummation. “All the songs that I composed I did in praise of her,” Machaut writes. And in another remarkable work, Voir dit, the narrative proceeds as a dialogue in letters between an aging Machaut and a young woman. (“Les lettres pris et les ouvry/mais à tous pas ne descouvry/le secret qui estoit dedens,/ains les lisoie entre mes dens”—“I seized and opened the letters, but the secret that lay within was not revealed to all, because I read them between my teeth.”) But the lyrical tradition in French poetry seems to start with him, and one of the greatest French poets of the next generation, Eustache Deschamps, was in fact his student.
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