The status Machaut achieved in the fourteenth century was relatively unprecedented and comparable only to that of the older composer Philippe de Vitry. Most other musical works of the time were transmitted anonymously, and we know little or nothing about their composers today. In contrast, Machaut and his works were famous. Both his poems and his musical compositions were known throughout Europe during his lifetime, their style and technique remaining models for at least forty years after his death. In addition, he occupies a special place in music history as being the first composer to write a complete, unified musical setting of the Mass Ordinary.
Very little information regarding the youth and training of Guillaume de Machaut is available. No record of his birth is extant, but scholars are in agreement that it was sometime between 1300 and 1302. The place of birth is likely to have been the town of Machaut, located about ninety miles east of Paris in the Champaign region.
In the literature concerning Machaut, he is at times referred to as “master,” which suggests that he received a formal education and became a magister artium, master of arts. Alternatively, the term “master” could be a reference to his reputation as a great poet and musician.
In the Service of John of Luxembourg
During the first part of his career, Machaut was employed by John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia. Machaut is thought to have entered the king’s service around the year 1323, the year in which he took holy orders. He served first as a secretary and a chaplain, then as a notary, and finally as the king’s personal secretary. Machaut accompanied the king in his numerous travels across Europe. John had residences in Luxembourg and Prague, and his military campaigns took him as far as Lithuania. The poetry Machaut wrote at this time offers a vivid picture of courtly life, describing, for instance, the taste of King John for banquets and tournaments.
Beginning in 1330, Machaut’s name appeared in successive papal records as a canon of several French parishes. Listing him as such was a way for John of Luxembourg to compensate Machaut for his services. Hence, although he was not physically present in the parishes, the status of canon – or of future canon (“canonicus in expectatione”) – entitled Machaut to a prébend, that is, a share of the revenue of a church or cathedral, either in the form of money or in the form of land. This entitlement is evidence that Machaut was by then of significant importance in the court structure.
However, in 1335, Pope Benedict XII took measures against this practice of parishes paying canons without benefiting from their presence. Machaut lost his prébends in all places but Reims Cathedral. Two years later, his name appeared on the register of the cathedral as an active member of the chapter, although he was not actually present until April 1340. It was then that he moved to Reims, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. Machaut’s brother, Jean, was also appointed a canon of Reims Cathedral.
Many of Machaut’s motets date from this period of his life. While other motets were likely written earlier, the first datable motet is Bone pastor Guillerme (numbered eighteen of twenty-three), which may have been composed for Guillaume de Trie’s appointment as Archbishop of Reims in 1324.
Reims, the House of Luxembourg, and the House of Navarre
Although 1340 marked the end of his active service for the King of Bohemia, Machaut retained his allegiance to him. When John died in a heroic fight for the French at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, his daughter Bonne became Machaut’s patron. Around that same time the first volume of Machaut’s compiled works was made, possibly due to Bonne’s support of Machaut.
In general, the years after 1340 mark an increase in Machaut’s musical production, who, until that point, had been writing mostly poetry and chronicles. Of particular interest are his ballades, a form that came into being sometime around 1340. Machaut’s ballades are the earliest extant examples, making it likely that, whether or not Machaut invented the form, he did much to forward it.
Upon the death of Bonne in 1349, Machaut found a new patron in Charles II, King of Navarre, who, at age seventeen, had recently ascended to the throne. At this time Machaut’s works began reflecting contemporary events as opposed to focusing solely on courtly love. One of his best-known narrative poems, Le Jugement du Roi de Navarre, comes from this period. In this work, Machaut featured Charles II and also vividly described the horrors of the Black Death.
In the last seventeen years of his life, Machaut’s reputation was such that he enjoyed the patronage of several important figures. Among them were two grandsons of John of Luxembourg, the future Charles V, and his brother John Duke of Berry. Machaut had known them as children, and Charles is even reported to have spent some time as a guest in Machaut’s house. In 1364, Machaut undoubtedly had the opportunity to see the young man become king, since French coronation ceremonies traditionally took place at Reims Cathedral. Scholars have also made the conjecture that his composition Hoquetus David may have been written for Charles V’s coronation.
The first half of the 1360s was an especially productive time for Machaut. The composition of the unprecedented work Messe de Nostre-Dame is thought to have taken place around 1362. This mass was apparently composed for the Reims Cathedral tradition of a Saturday mass dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which had existed since 1341. Machaut’s mass is the first example of a through-composed setting of the Ordinary, a tradition that has continued through Palestrina, Mozart, and innumerable others to the present day. For that reason the Messe de Nostre-Dame holds a special place in the history of Western music.
Machaut and his brother also funded an endowment for the performance of the mass as a memorial after their deaths. The memorial seems to have been faithfully kept, since a text from 1411, several years after the brothers died, mentions its existence.
Soon after the completion of the mass, Machaut engaged, from 1363 to 1365, in the writing of the Voir Dit (or Veoir Dict), his largest narrative work. This work is particularly interesting because, while it concerns the popular topic of courtly love, its protagonist is a poet rather than the customary young nobleman. A young woman named Péronne, with whom Machaut was allegedly in love, is said to have inspired the Voir Dit. However, some scholars contest the autobiographical character of the work and even the very existence of Péronne. Regardless, the work is a masterpiece, comprising over nine thousand lines of text and eight musical settings.
Machaut seems to have devoted the last years of his life to supervising the compilation of his works. He died in April 1377 and was buried inside the cathedral next to his brother who had died in 1372.
Significance and Legacy
The largest part of Machaut’s output was narrative or poetic. These works include the fifteen dits that he authored, along with the collection Loange des dames. His collection of chronicles amounts to about 40,000 lines of text.
In addition, 142 of his musical works are still extant. Some of these were meant to be inserted within the recited dits as musical interludes; such an arrangement is suggested in the Remede de Fortune and the Voir Dicts, both of which preserved the text and the music together.
A sure sign of Machaut’s high status as an artist was the special care that was taken in the preservation of his works. Rather than being copied among the works of others, Machaut’s texts and music were collected in a series of richly illuminated manuscripts. Machaut himself took an active role in the making of what constitutes a remarkably early example of a complete-works edition. The compilation of this material is thought to have started around 1350 and to have been intended for the use of Machaut’s rich patrons. Although dates of composition are rarely given, the chronological order used in the collection facilitates estimates. Mentions of historical or biographical events and stylistic evolution also contribute to the dating of the works.