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The mimetic basis of pure music in Machaut's refrain songs: part 2, musical abstraction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2020



The dualistic relationship of words and music in Machaut's refrain songs (proposed in Part 1 of this article) enables abstraction of the music from the poetic model that inspires it. This situation is at its most extreme in certain rondeaux, representatives of a genre for which a special function in Machaut's output is argued. Studies of specific groups of songs (B9–R4 and B35–R13–R21) illustrate the gradual development and detachment of material in related compositions. Through these accounts, it can be seen that the relationship of words and music proceeds on the same fundamental basis in the seemingly melismatic rondeaux as in the syllabic virelais, despite the apparently closer connection found in these latter. The technical unity at work in Machaut's song composition is constitutive of an aesthetic position. The abstracted musical text is an aspect of the multifaceted voice of Machaut's lyric œuvre and tends to subsume the poetry it sets creating an aesthetic of pure music.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2020

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Completion of the work was aided by a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship for the academic year 2018–19.

Translations are my own. Music examples derive from my edition of Machaut's works which can be accessed at:

I am grateful to Catherine Bradley and David Lee for their assistance with the musical examples.


1 ‘Dous amis’ (B6) and ‘Dame, comment’ (B16) have even sharper ratios (35:63 and 46:90 respectively), but these are owing to the extensive use of declamation at the modus level of rhythm that is a stylistic feature of the songs and exceptional in them (though common in the lais). Their ratios conform to the norm for the ballade (35:21 and 46:30, respectively) if the perfect long rather than the breve is counted, which is a more realistic way of assessing them.

2 Earp, Lawrence, ‘Lyrics for Reading and Lyrics for Singing in Late Medieval France: The Development of the Dance Lyric from Adam de la Halle to Guillaume de Machaut’, in The Union of Words and Music in Medieval Poetry, ed. Baltzer, Rebecca A., Cable, Thomas and Wimsatt, James I. (Austin, 1991), 101–29Google Scholar; Page, Christopher, ‘Tradition and Innovation in BN fr. 146: The Background to the Ballades’, in Fauvel Studies: Allegory, Chronicle, Music, and Image in Paris Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS Français 146, ed. Bent, Margaret and Wathey, Andrew (Oxford, 1998), 353–94Google Scholar.

3 Everist, Mark, ‘“Souspirant en terre estrainge”: The Polyphonic Rondeau from Adam de la Halle to Guillaume de Machaut’, Early Music History, 26 (2007), 1–42, esp. 33–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 These statistics follow Table 6.3 in Earp, Lawrence, Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research (New York and London, 1995), 247–55Google Scholar, discounting poems also set to music or regarded as of doubtful authorship.

5 It should be noted, though, that Machaut had to some degree answered this question by the time of the Remede de Fortune (thought to have been written in the 1340s – see Earp, Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research, 123 and The Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript, DIAMM Facsimiles 5, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2004), 1: 30–1), which includes a rondeau alongside the other genres in its inserted survey of lyric songs.

6 The two longest rondeaux are R14 (from the 1360s) and R21 (from the 1370s), which have lengths of 80 and 76 breves respectively. The only ballade that is longer is B16, with 90 breves; but its exceptional rhythm has already been mentioned (in note 1), and the song does not undermine the narrative of the rondeau's advance in importance relative to the ballade. It should be noted, however, that the progress of the rondeau is not a simple linear one, as two of Machaut's last four essays in the genre represent a return to an earlier structural approach: R18 maintains a tight declamation and compact form similar to R1; ‘Douce dame, tant com’ (R20) has a more florid style and is longer than these but maintains a similarly tight declamation. See the reconstruction in Maw, David, ‘“Bona cadentia dictaminum”: Reconstructing Word Setting in Machaut's Songs’, Music and Letters, 94 (2013), 383–432, at 391–2 and 399–400CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet has observed that ‘writers of the fourteenth century were acutely aware of living in a time of crisis in literary materials’ (trans. Cochrane, Lydia G., The Color of Melancholy: The Uses of Books in the Fourteenth Century (Baltimore, 1997), 52Google Scholar). The Ars Nova in music was in part a reaction to a similar crisis in musical materials, and the rondeau focused the anxieties to which it gave rise.

8 Mach-E is a source whose authorial status is puzzling. It is the unique source for Machaut's final two lais yet it lacks other pieces (e.g., Hoquetus David) from the oeuvre. Some of its copies present texts that are superior to those found in the other Machaut Music Manuscripts (e.g., triplum of R9, tenor of R21 – yet the textual superiority in this latter case is paradoxical as the copy is inferior for lack of the contratenor, not an optional voice here). It presents some additional voice-parts that are credible as the work of Machaut (e.g., contratenors of B27, R7, triplum of B31). Yet it also contains highly corrupted readings derived from Mach-B, added voice-parts that are not (or probably not) by Machaut (e.g., contratenors of B20, B23) and shows a dependency at times on repertory manuscripts outside Machaut's sphere. See Bent, Margaret, ‘The Machaut Manuscripts Vg, B and E’, Musica Disciplina, 37 (1983), 53–82, esp. 61–76 and 78–82Google Scholar. The comments on 73 are particularly salient.

9 Maw, David, ‘The Mimetic Basis of Pure Music in Machaut's Refrain Songs: Part 1, Musical Mimesis’, Plainsong and Medieval Music, 29 (2020), 27–50, at 35, 37–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 My proposal here is not that Machaut composed ballades before turning to the rondeau as specific phases of activity, but that there are close relationships between certain rondeaux and ballades deriving from a compositional process in which the ballades were written first. The composition of the ballades and rondeaux in these relationships may well have been temporally close.

11 Whilst ‘Dous amis’ (B6) seems also to have lines of three different lengths, the shorter ones (of four and three syllables) are in fact written as complementary pairs that equal the length of the long ones (heptasyllables). In effect, it is a monometric poem in heptasyllables in which some of the lines have leonine rhyme at the fourth syllable.

12 See Maw, ‘“Bona cadential dictaminum”’, 404–5, 409–12, 429 and 431 for reconstruction of the word setting in these songs.

13 The analyses that follow use the concept of implied declamation to explain the detachment of musical phrasing from the poetic form. An issue arises here in the recognition of phrase boundaries: the length of cadences and the treatment of anacrustic elements. For example, in the first line of B9, the anacrustic eighth breve is not counted as part of the following heptasyllable, although the same figure occurs within the phrase four breves later. In that case, the cadence is taken as lasting a long. In the second line, however, the cadence of the first pentasyllable lasts just a single breve. In the oultrepasse the two types occur one after the other (breve-cadence for the opening heptasyllable, long-cadence for the ensuing trisyllable). These inconsistencies are justified by their occurrence in the actual phrasing of Machaut's songs. In B3, the cadence of the first main phrase lasts a long (at breve 9); that of the following phrase lasts just a breve (at breve 17). Similarly, the anacrusis into the fourth phrase of B10 is included within the declamation of the line (at breve 14, ‘se souvent’) but not into the second phrase of the second part (breve 5 of the second part, ‘en vous’).

14 Plumley, Yolanda, ‘The Marriage of Words and Music: Musique Naturele and Musique Artificele in Machaut's Sans cuer, dolens (R4)’, in Machaut's Music: New Interpretations, ed. Leach, Elizabeth Eva (Woodbridge, 2003), 231–48, at 241–3Google Scholar.

15 Karl Kügle, ‘Some Observations Regarding Musico-Textual Interrelationships in Late Rondeaux by Machaut’, in Machaut's Music, ed. Leach, 263–76, esp. 268–71.

16 Material in these songs is also shared with R17, B32 and B33; Plumley, Yolanda, The Art of Grafted Song: Citation and Allusion in the Age of Machaut (New York, 2013), 362–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 The rhythm of these phrases brings out the differences of phrase length by adding or subtracting statements of a recurrent cell (1 minim, 3 semibreves, 3 minims).

18 Inversion of hemistichs in setting the decasyllable had already been tried in the refrains of B28 and B33.

19 The plan here is a more flexible version of the technique in R8, which begins with a free sequence of three minor-hemistich phrases which are answered with a strict isorhythmic sequence of three major hemistichs.

20 The S–B–S rhythm is an important one in Machaut's polyphonic writing, appearing often in cantus and tenor voices. In addition to the three songs discussed here, see B1, B3, B5, B23, B25, B27, B28, B31, B34, R2, R3, R8, R9, R14, R17 and R20. See also the discussion of R8 in Dömling, Wolfgang, Die mehrstimmigen Balladen, Rondeaux und Virelais von Guillaume de Machaut (Tutzing, 1970), 3746Google Scholar.

21 The others are ‘Rose, lis’ (R10) and ‘Comment puet on’ (R11).

22 A similar technique had been tried in B14, where an opening minor-hemistich phrase receives its complement right at the end.

23 Maw, David, ‘Machaut's “Parody” Technique’, Context, 21 (2001), 5–20, at 12–13Google Scholar.

24 Alison Julia Bullock, ‘The Musical Readings of the Machaut Manuscripts’, Ph.D. diss., 2 vols., University of Southampton (1997), 1: 147; 2: 46. See also Maw, David, ‘“Trespasser mesure”: Meter in Machaut's Polyphonic Songs’, Journal of Musicology, 21 (2004), 46–126, at 97–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Maw, ‘Machaut's “Parody” Technique’, 17.

26 I presented a more extended account of this tonality in ‘Machaut's Bifocal Tonality’, paper read at the Plainsong and Medieval Music Conference, University of Bristol, 2002.

27 Much has been made of the contrapunctus model of harmony in fourteenth-century polyphonic music, but it is important not to overlook other types of chord progression available to composers. The parallel harmony used here (and at cadences in B6 and R5, see Bain, Jennifer, ‘Theorizing the cadence in the Music of Machaut’, Journal Music Theory, 47 (2003), 325–362, at 342CrossRefGoogle Scholar) is found also in the first of the complete estampies of the Robertsbridge Codex (London, British Library, Add. MS 28850). Such harmony is commonplace in the compositions of the manuscript. It may relate to the harmonic practice noted by Jacques de Liège as deriving its name from the interval most used, such as ‘fifthing’ and ‘fourthing’ (‘diapentizare vel quinthiare … quartare sive diatesseronare’). Roger Bragard, ed., Jacobi Leodiensis Speculum musicae, Corpus scriptorum de musica, vol. 3/7 ([Rome], 1973), 24. See Fuller, Sarah, ‘Discant and the Theory of Fifthing’, Acta Musicologica, 50 (1978), 241–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 R21 does not represent the most extreme abstraction of music from poem. That point is achieved by R14, which is even a little longer. Like R21, its poem is built from a refrain of two octosyllabic lines. The music is concerned with the unique structural idea of a retrograde canon in its cantus, which imposes constraints quite unlike those governing any other piece by Machaut. The setting is melismatic, but the musical phrasing is derived from the octosyllable. The opening and closing phrases of both parts have the five-long duration of octosyllables in breve declamation (initial and terminal longs with six paired breves between). The full length of the refrain is 40 longs (i.e., eight times the five longs of an octosyllable). Perhaps the first stage in the compositional process was to map out four octosyllables in each part. This established the frame phrasing at the beginning and end; in between, phrase lengths were then varied within the timespan established.

29 ‘sicut persaepe videmus tam consonos et sibimet alterutrum respondentes versus in metris, ut quamdam quasi symphoniam grammaticae admireris. Cui si musica simili responsione iungatur, duplici modulatione dupliciter delecteris’. Smits van Waesberghe, Jos., ed., Guidonis Aretini Micrologus, Corpus scriptorum de musica 4 ([Rome], 1955), 188Google Scholar.

30 Page, Christopher, ‘Johannes de Grocheio on Secular Music: A Corrected Text and a New Translation’, Plainsong and Medieval Music, 2 (1993), 17–41, at 27–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 ces deux musiques sont si consonans l'une avecques l'autre, que chascune puet bien estre appellée musique’. Raynaud, Gaston (ed.), Oeuvres complètes d'Eustache Deschamps, 11 vols. (Paris, 1891), 7: 271Google Scholar.

32 ‘Retorique n'ara riens enferme/Que ne te envoit en metre et en rimer.’ R. Barton Palmer, Guillaume de Machaut: The Fountain of Love (La Fonteinne Amoureuse) and Two Other Love Vision Poems (New York and London, 1993), 2.

33 Maw, David, ‘Machaut and the “Critical” Phase of Medieval Polyphony’, Music and Letters, 87 (2006), 262–94, at 289–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Leach, Elizabeth Eva, ‘Poet as Musician’, in A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut, ed. McGrady, Deborah and Bain, Jennifer (Leiden and Boston, 2012), 49–66, esp. 58–63Google Scholar.

35 ‘chacune de ces deux plaisant a ouir par soy; et se puet l'une chanter par voix et par art, sanz parole’. Raynaud, ed., Oeuvres complètes d'Eustache Deschamps, 7: 272.

36 The clerk, the lover, and the poetic craftsman are conflated into a single but multi-faceted poetic voice.Brownlee, Kevin, Poetic Identity in Guillaume de Machaut (Madison, 1984), 18Google Scholar.

37 See Anne Stone, ‘Music Writing and Poetic Voice in Machaut: Some Remarks on B12 and R14’, in Machaut's Music, ed. Leach, 125–38, at 136–7.

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