Lauded today as the greatest of the 14th century
composers, Guillaume de Machaut (sometimes spelled Machault) was an extremely
versatile composer, whose influence lasted well into the succeeding century.
Perhaps most remarkably, and to the great delight of scholars and music-lovers
alike, his life is fairly well documented and his own writings provided a
wealth of insight into not only his own life but also into the world in which
Machaut is believed to have been born around the year 1300
in the region of Rheims, though his surname likely derives from the town of
Machault some 30km east of there. Between 1323 and 1346, he worked in the
service of John, Duke of Luxemburg and King of Bohemia. His patron secured for
him multiple ecclesiastical posts, the most important of which was a canonry at
Rheims. The Duke also took Machaut with him on his journeys throughout Europe,
many of which were military campaigns. In 1346, King John was killed at the
Battle of Crécy. With his connections among the nobility, Machaut was
relatively unaffected by the death of his patron, and subsequently entered the
services of various aristocrats, including King John's daughter Bonne, Charles
V and Charles of Navarre. In the succeeding years, Machaut was also lucky
enough to survive the devastating outbreak of the Black Plague that killed a
significant portion of Europe's population. In his later years, he remained in
Rheims and died in April 1377.
Machaut was a highly respected poet and composer, mastering
both of these sisterly art forms. His output as a poet was prolific, totally
around 400 poems. This profuse body of writing did much to perfect and codify
the formes fixes and remained
influential on other poets even into the next century, such as Gregory Chaucer.
A significant majority of Machaut's poems are portrayals of courtly love.
However, many also give insight into Machaut's own life, while some relate
tragic events such as the Black Death and the Siege of Rheims.
As a composer, Machaut was part of the ars nova movement. His output was predominantly in secular music,
ranging from monophonic songs, many of which follow the tradition of the
troubadours, to polyphonic settings. His motets are particularly interesting in
their use of three different texts, the first two of secular origin and the
last sacred, each sung by a different voice and sung simultaneously with the
other voices. Despite his prolific output of secular music, Machaut's is most
recognized in modern times for creating the first complete setting of the Ordinary
of the Mass by a single composer: the Messe
de Nostre Dame ("Mass of Our Lady"). It was likely composed for the Rheims
Cathedral in the early 1360s, yet it's generally thought to not be a completely
unified work. In all probability, it bears a resemblance to J. S. Bach's Mass
in B minor in that its separate sections were pieced together from other works.
Nevertheless, it served as a precursor to the cyclic masses by composers of the
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