« La messe de Machaut : fin d’une époque,
commencement d’un genre »
par Isabelle Ragnard, musicologue, maîtresse de conférences à Sorbonne-Université
20.00 – Concert d’ouverture
Église Saint Charles
Durée approximative 1h
Guillaume de Machaut
Ma fin est mon commencement
Messe de Nostre Dame
Ensemble Gilles Binchois
Two famous musical “anomalies” of the 14th century
The unity of Machaut’s Mass, however, is not clearly obvious and reveals several phases of development. Intended to be sung by experienced soloists, the four-voice polyphonic ensemble generally featured two groups: the upper range triplum and duplum are supported by two voices (tenor and countertenor) whose tessituras are almost identical, constituting a solid foundation. Nonetheless, the registers used in each voice vary according to the movements. Similarly, the harmonic colors, born of modality, are disparate: the Dorian mode on D (“minor”) for the first three chants and the Lydian mode on F (“major”) for the last three. This distribution results from the choice of liturgical plainchants serving as a base for the contrapuntal compositions, which Machaut selected from the “ordinaries” generally associated with the Feasts of the Virgin.
The most noticeable divergence is stylistic. Machaut acts rationally, treating the long texts (Gloria and Credo) with a vertical counterpoint (“conductus”), in which the four voices deliver the words simultaneously. Several times, the rapid rate of declamation suddenly freezes, to call attention to certain expressions: “et in terra pax,” “Jesus Christe” and “ex Maria virgine.” Pauses, marked by cadences and a short passage in the lower voices, assemble the phrases in balanced sections. The music thus magnifies the rhetorical structure of the sacred discourse. In contrast, long melismas expand the two syllables of the concluding Amen and the shorter pieces (Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus dei and Ite missa est), since Machaut opted for the overlaying of melodic lines with contrasting rhythms, in “motet” style. The fundamental voice of the original plainchant is thus the tenor, to whom Machaut gives a repetitive and rigorous rhythmic organization, called isorhythm. The countertenor rhythmically completes the line, in such a way as to never allow any simultaneous silences. The upper parts are often more fluid and dynamic, regularly studded with syncopations and hockets (the rapid alternation of sounds and silences between two voices). In this regard, it is remarkable to hear this type of rhythmic play in the countertenor voice at the end of the Gloria’s “Amen.” Finally, a careful examination of the score reveals a unifying element barely perceptible to the ear: a short dactylic unit (dotted half note, quarter note-half note, dotted half note) recurring in the tenor in several movements.
Like the Mass, the chanson “Ma fin est mon commencement” (My end is my beginning) is an eminently singular and innovative work, in which Machaut invents a poetic-musical rebus. The verses of the rondeau give the solution to the puzzle posed by the apparent incompleteness of the score in the manuscripts. First of all, two voices are notated, but a third must also be sung, because a canon in retrograde governs the two upper voices (cantus and triplum), one of them reading the melody backwards from the last note (My end is my beginning / and my beginning my end). The tenor, also partially notated, follows the same principle – its second part is “in retrograde and finishes thusly.” The master of counterpoint achieves an intellectual tour de force,resulting in dazzling sounds.
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