04.02.09, Robertson, Guillaume de Machaut and Reims

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Alice V. Clark

The Medieval Review baj9928.0402.009


Robertson, Anne Walters. Guillaume de Machaut and Reims: Context and Meaning in His Musical Works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xx, 456. ISBN: 0-521-41876-3.

Reviewed by:
Alice V. Clark
Loyola University New Orleans

Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-77) is a figure of singular importance in the history of both medieval French literature and music. He ensured this would be so, by engineering the collection of all his works in manuscripts, many of which survive. In these manuscripts are contained not only narrative and lyric poems, but musical works: songs (monophonic and polyphonic), motets, a hocket, and a setting of the Ordinary of the Mass. Anne Walters Robertson focuses her attention on the last three groups in her eagerly-awaited book, which was recently awarded the Otto Kinkeldey award of the American Musicological Society, for the "most distinguished" work of musical scholarship published in 2002.

Because so much of Robertson's study hinges on the interpretation of motets, a genre probably unfamiliar to many TMR readers, a brief description of the motet as practiced in fourteenth-century France may be in order. These pieces generally have three or four parts, with two differently texted voices (known as triplum and motetus) above a tenor that is usually but not always a fragment of Gregorian chant. An untexted contratenor, moving in the same range and at the same relatively slow rhythmic pace as the tenor, appears in four of Machaut's twenty-three motets. The polyphony of music and text that is characteristic of the motets of Machaut and his mostly- anonymous contemporaries may be difficult for modern listeners, but it exemplifies the idea, derived from Boethius and the Greeks, that sounding music is a reflection of more important inaudible harmonies, and scholars have drawn attention to the symbolic web that is the medieval motet, intertextually referring on the one hand to the bible and liturgy, on the other to secular literature such as the Romance of the Rose. Motets also engage in dialogue with other motets, demonstrating modeling and influence in many ways.

Before turning to the music, she provides us with the best study to date of Machaut's relationship to the city of Reims, where he may have received his early training and where he served as a canon for the last few decades of his long life, after nearly two decades in the service of John, King of Bohemia (d. 1346). [[1]] Here Robertson, author of an earlier study of music and liturgy at the royal abbey of Saint-Denis, gives us perhaps the best capsule history currently available, at least in English, of the city of Reims and its institutions, especially the cathedral where Machaut worked and French kings were crowned.

She integrates this history into a discussion of two of Machaut's Latin motets. She suggests that the tenor of motet 18, dedicated to Guillaume de Trie (archbishop of Reims 1324- 34) may be derived from a chant for Saints Peter and Paul, specifically from a melisma with the text fratres, which Machaut presumably altered and provided with the new text Bone pastor, matching the first words of both of the motet's upper voices. This melodic identification, along with her connection of a small musical gesture given to the name "Guillerme" to the laudes regiae, I find less convincing than her study of the motet texts, which she shows are more general and hortatory than specifically celebratory. The other motet, in honor of Saint Quentin, she argues can be linked to regular meetings of the canons of the archdiocese of Reims at the Dominican convent in the city of St.-Quentin, though she admits that these meetings did not take place near the feast day of that saint, so she must hypothesize a visit to the collegiate church of Saint-Quentin during the meeting. The traditional explanation, that it is somehow related to a canonicate Machaut held at Saint-Quentin, may be simpler, though Robertson reminds us that Machaut seems never to have been in residence there.

Robertson has sought meaning for the bulk of Machaut's motets, and a guiding principle for their organization within the Machaut manuscripts, from what may appear to be an unusual source: she links motets 1-17 to the idea of a spiritual journey, most clearly like that described in Henry Suso's Horologium Sapientiae (c. 1333), which she argues Machaut could have known as early as c. 1340. Several chapters are devoted to a discussion of this spiritual reading and its embodiment in music, especially through the chant fragments that make up the tenors of most of these motets, but she also traces reflections of that reading in the upper-voice texts. The fact that most of these texts are love complaints in French should not overly trouble medievalists used to the similarities between the language of Marian devotion and that of fin' amors, and a number of recent scholars (including the present author) have argued for seeing this kind of play between what we might call "secular" and "sacred" as basic to the motet. [[2]] Machaut was not the only composer to write motets based on French-texted love complaints with chant tenors, usually drawn either from the Marian liturgy or that for Lent and especially Holy Week, but he concentrates on this type of motet more than do his contemporaries, whose motets are more likely to be devotional or hortatory works with Latin texts. Robertson sees this difference in Machaut's output, as well as the presence of one single Latin motet in the middle of the seventeen French ones (two motets actually have one Latin text and one French), as needing explanation, and she finds that explanation in a mystical spiritual reading of the vernacular texts, where a disciple "struggles to attain and retain his Lady Wisdom, who reveals herself early on as Christ" (97).

Suso's work, or something very like it, Robertson would not only see as the best key to understanding why Machaut ordered his motets as he did in his manuscripts, but she also argues that he composed at least four of these motets specifically to illustrate the spiritual journey, "theologically driven, yet outwardly courtly" (178), that she believes is the basic story of Machaut's motets 1-17, a kind of translation into the vernacular of spiritual concerns. This conclusion is ultimately unprovable, but Robertson brings great learning to her argument and makes her case well. While I am still not certain that Suso's spiritual journey is as central to the creation of as many individual motets as she would have us believe, her story may explain Machaut's ordering process, and I believe that he would likely approve of Robertson's reading as, if not the last word, at least a valid interpretation. Her study reinforces the wonderfully multivalent nature of this most intertextual of musical genres.

A small excursus at the midpoint of Robertson's book, in the middle of her discussion of the central motet of her seventeen- motet cycle, concerns the thirteenth-century poet and canon of Reims Dreux de Hautvillers. This seemingly unimportant aside appears to be deliberately placed at the center of her study, not only because she sees Dreux's poetry as influencing the texts of Machaut's motet 9, but also because she argues Dreux, who supervised the ordering and copying of manuscripts of his works, two of which were "kept on a pulpit in the vestibule of the cathedral" (144) until the fifteenth century, directly influenced Machaut's compiling interests and his "self- awareness as an author and producer" of his works. [[3]] This theory may well warrant further development and publication elsewhere.

The connection of motets 1-17 to Suso's Horologium Sapientiae forms the core of Robertson's study. Having already discussed the next two motets in her introductory section on Machaut and Reims, she gives a short postlude on motet 20 (partially derived from Earp, who sees it as a memorial for Bonne of Luxembourg, daughter of John of Bohemia and wife of John, duke of Normandy, who became king of France the year after Bonne died of the plague in 1349). This concludes the motet corpus as given in the earliest of Machaut's complete-works manuscripts.

Following are three relatively independent discussions, concerning respectively the last three motets, the David Hocket, and the Mass. Robertson does not break entirely new ground in linking the late motets 21-23 to historical events around 1360, but she adds some detail, focusing on the circumstances surrounding the English siege of Reims in 1359- 60, and this chapter is by far the fullest explanation of the connection between these motets and the political situation of that time. Moreover, her suggestion that M23, and possibly M21 as well, formed part of the Salve service, a Marian commemoration following Compline, is only the most important of the additional insights she gives to this topic. (Though she would see M21 and M23 as functionally related, and she gives good reasons for placing M23 at the end of the collection, she does not account for why M22 should fall between these two, an omission that may seem strange given the emphasis given to ordering principles elsewhere.) She argues that these three pieces represent "a new conception of the motet" (190), larger in scope and facilitated by improvements made to the financing of the cathedral choir in the 1350s.

Hocket, related to the word "hiccup," is a musical passage that sounds broken up between the parts, as voices alternate short notes as if trying to sing while hiccuping. This technique, which sounds far more interesting in music than in verbal description, provides a rhythmically dynamic and texturally striking element to many motets of Machaut and his contemporaries, but it was old-fashioned as a genre in its own right by Machaut's time. Robertson shows convincingly how his hocket on the tenor David (from the Alleluia Nativitas gloriose virginis functions as "a retrospective piece...meant for a special occasion" (227), specifically the coronation of Charles V at Reims in 1364.

The Mass was also at one time rather uncritically connected with the coronation of Charles V. Both Robertson and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, however, working independently at about the same time, removed it from this honor over a decade ago. [[4]] Machaut wrote his Messe de Nostre Dame, one of the earliest polyphonic settings of the complete Mass Ordinary, for a Marian votive Mass celebrated at an altar in the nave of Reims Cathedral, intending it also to serve eventually as a memorial for himself and his brother Jean. Robertson here refines her earlier discussion with new documentation on the altar and the endowment.

Three appendices conclude the book, two closely tied to the study (one of documents and another of manuscripts cited), and a third containing complete texts and translations for all Machaut's motets; this last will likely become an invaluable reference in its own right.

The book is well produced and nearly free of errors. The use of end notes, which this reader finds continually frustrating, seems less to be a matter of publisher fiat than a by-product of Robertson's style, which is full of detail far beyond what might appear necessary to make her primary points, making extensive use of long notes of a sort that admittedly do not sit well at the foot of the page. Figures (illustrations and maps), tables, and musical examples are generous and clear. It would help enormously if page references had been given when the reader is referred back to a figure or table, as happens in particular in the first two chapters: one is often forced to go to the list of figures at the front, or search backwards in the text (there is no list of tables or musical examples). These are minor quibbles, but they do distract the reader.

But they cannot detract from the overall quality of the content. This is an important and learned book, showing the intersections between politics, fin' amors, and spirituality that underlie Machaut's work and, one hopes, bringing to the attention of medievalists some ways in which music, like literature and the other arts, participates in creating medieval culture.


[[1]] Those interested in a fuller biographical picture, including his continued service to John and other patrons, especially in the royal houses of France and Navarre, may wish to turn to Lawrence M. Earp, Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research, Garland Composer Resource Manuals 36 (New York and London: Garland, 1995), which is a book far more valuable than its title may suggest.

[[2]] Robertson in particular points to Sylvia Huot's Allegorical Play in the Old French Motet: The Sacred and the Profane in Thirteenth-Century Polyphony, Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[[3]] This phrase comes from Sarah Jane Williams, "Machaut's Self-Awareness as an Author and Producer," in Machaut's World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century, ed. Madeleine Pelner Cosman and Bruce Chandler, 189-97 (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1978).

[[4]] See Anne Walters Robertson, "The Mass of Guillaume de Machaut in the Cathedral of Reims," in Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony, ed. Thomas Forrest Kelly, 100-39 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Machaut's Mass: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

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Author Biography

Alice V. Clark

Loyola University New Orleans