Friday, 22 October 2010

1300-1400 Machaut's Mass and Motets

Anyway, swiftly moving on, into a new century we find that Organum has now been succeeded by the ‘Motet’. This is recognised as part of a new style in music by Philip De Vitry who gave it the name Ars Nova in 1322. He labelled the old pre 1300 style Ars Antica. The main thing that distinguished Ars Nova from Ars Antiqua was that it was written using new notation developed by De Vitry who gave the notes different lengths, resembling what we today know as semibreves, minims, crotchets  and quavers and this enabled the composers to focus more on rhythm and tunefulness.

Ars Nova is the style for a new age of secular culture which emerges as corruption begins to weaken the church. The perception of the church is further changed by its impotence in the face of the black death in 1347 and later by two popes who both claim to have been chosen by God causing the great schism 1378-1417. As we have seen the rise in standing of secular music in the previous century had begun to have an influence in the music of the church too. It meant that churchmen would now not limit themselves to writing religious music but also wrote secular music too.

The greatest surviving compositions of this century come from Guillame de Machaut (1300-77) composing in the Ars Nova style in Rheims Cathedral in Northern France. Although a priest most of his music was secular, composing mainly motets. He also composed one rare bit of very important religious church music. The Messe de Nostre Dame was the first mass ever composed. This new musical form would endure through centuries to come in the works of countless other composers. Of even more significance was Machaut’s recognition of his own importance as a composer. The idea of the composer being of cultural importance was unprecedented and Machaut is the first to see himself in this way.

Listen though to Helas! Ou sera pris confors or any other of Machaut's motets and you will hear how the rhythm is now more detailed. The words are now sung much closer to the speed at which they would have been spoken. It is quite fascinating how around the time of the emergence of mechanical clocks that were being installed into the cathedral towers a new focus on rhythm, meter and timing is brought into music. It is also curious how the shift from long slow chanting to more intricate rhythm, wording and notation would match the recent shift in architectural style from the broad sweeping arches to refined sculpted detail.

And what about everything else in this century? In many respects these were difficult times with social unrest across much of Europe, economic decline and the church losing power. There were famines and worst of all the black death which wiped out a third of Europe’s population in two years from 1347. The crusades had now finished and the chivalrous knight had had his day.  Padua fought against Venice and Verona, the hundred years war began in 1337 between England and France and canons were invented to bring more death and destruction. That warm period in European climate I mentioned a few posts back had now come to an end so even the weather took a turn for the worse.

King Philip IV of France heavily taxed those highly succesful trade fairs in Champagne to fund the hundred years war. The fairs at Champagne in the previous century had customarily been welcome to all merchants around Europe but now Philip banned the Flemish and taxed and confiscated items from the jewish and Italian merchants and effectively brought these fairs to an end as well as the trade routes leading to them. The Italian merchants in desperation now sailed round Gibralter to Bruges whose economy benefited as a result.

Philip then taxed the church to fund the war. Up until that time taxes were only ever levied as an emergency to launch a crusade or to combat an invasion. Under the feudal system the king's revenue was  supposed to derive from the rents of his land. To fund the hundred years war Philip now made what were initially conceived as emergency taxes regular. Instead of being relaxed the taxes were just added to or increased. Philip even went as far as taking control of the papacy and placing it in Avignon where he would appoint the pope. This split between France and the church greatly weakened the church.

On the plus side, despite the economic decline, relative to earlier centuries cities were now bustling centres of commerce and wealth was no longer confined to the church and nobility with the new class of bourgeoisie. Modern day banking and accounting really got going and the first insurance contracts were signed. Gothic architecture was now transferred to secular city buildings like town halls - a sign of wealth being spread more evenly between the church and the bourgoisie.

In Technology? Stone bridge building spanned unprecedented distances (40m) in France, Spain and Italy during this century  and the architects had learned how to combine aesthetics with sound engineering in these new constructions which varied from having semi-circular, pointed or segmented arches. During this century firstly the hourglass emerged and then mechanical clocks were installed in clock towers. I love how this parallels with the way time and rhythm becomes much more evident in music. The invention in this century of canons, cross bows and metal armour were useful for the French and English and their continuing battles.

In architecture? The focus went from the grand to the refined, with the emphasis more on the detail than making buildings more spacious and lighter and taller. Curiously this too parallels the new detail found in the Ars Nova music with the motet’s new found intricacy of rhythm and wording.

In Art? In the previous century the Gothic Cathedrals had taken giant leaps for architecture but Art was to take one giant leap in about 1306 with the work of Giotto di Bondone 1266-1337. He tried to mimic the great work of the sculptures that had been seen in the cathedrals and in doing so he created the illusion of depth in his painting (see below)and succeeded in making them appear three dimensional – a revolution.
Literature? - As with the developments in art with Giotto, this is an exciting century when literature really takes off with Petrarch (1304-1374) and Dante (1265-1321) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) in Italy.  Petrarch took the view that God wanted humans to use their intellectual capability to the fullest. He also thought there was great value in studying human thought of the ancient Greece and Rome and was the first person to call the dark ages the dark ages. He started the humanist movement which called for better writing and speaking. For these things he is known as the father of the rennaissance. He also invented the sonnet. Petrarch’s friend Boccaccio was a skilful narrative writer and influenced Chaucer. Dante’s achievement was to write one of the greatest works in all literature with his Divine Comedy c.1308. The father of English literature Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) wrote about courtly love and ordinary people. Writers such as Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer wrote in the local vernacular rather than Latin so ordinary people could read their work which was a great contributory factor to the flowering of literature in this period.

Philosophy? The church had its problems and they were not helped by William of Occam (1288-1347) who had to defend his views in front of a papal commission in 1324. Although a Christian he believed that nothing depends on anything else for its existence and humans have freewill and have to take their own moral responsibility. The church preferred the idea that God directed everything. Occam died in 1347, very probably a black death victim.

My selection from this century is bound to be Guillame de Machaut
and as suggested above try Helas! Ou sera pris confors from The Hilliard Ensemble - (Guillame de Machaut: motets)  which you can hear on spotify or itunes.

Although I am not overly thrilled about his music just yet, who knows I might one day find I like it a bit more than I do now. At the moment I know there is too much good music in the years to come to dwell on this for too long, but I will probably come back to it. I am not sure he really gets in to my greatest hitstory but he was the best there was at this time. Perhaps his music was made in a bit too much of a depressing century (depressing save for massive excitement in art and literature which kick started the renaissance). Machaut's music misses one ingredient that will be added to the mix with our next composer, but that is for the next century.


  1. nice blog

    I wonder whether you are aware that you can create links to tracks and albums on Spotify.

    Or you could create a playlist and share that

    It would be handy for us readers


  2. Thanks Phil,
    Hopefully you can get to my spotify playlist from here:--

    my link should be at the bottom of each posting - that's my intention anyway.