Personalities | Guillaume de Machaut | Medieval Era | Classical

(Ge-yom’ da Ma-sho’) c. 1300–77
French Composer and Poet

Machaut was the most important poet-composer of fourteenth-century France and had a wide and enduring influence. He was in constant demand by the greatest noble patrons of his day, and his music reflects this patronage.

He was unusual, although probably not unique, among medieval writers in that he made an effort to collect his works – both poetic and musical – and six lavishly decorated manuscripts exist today (at least one has been lost). Between them they preserve what is probably his complete output.

The Last Trouvère

Although Machaut’s most famous work is probably his Mass, most of his music was secular, composed for courtly or popular purposes. He was known not only for his music but also for his poetry, and in writing both words and music he was more or less the last in the long tradition of the trouvères – a tradition reflected in his writing of large-scale forms such as the lai. His fame as a poet equalled and perhaps surpassed his renown as a musician; he almost certainly met Geoffrey Chaucer, who was heavily influenced by his poetry and translated some of it into English.

Machaut is a fascinating figure, partly because so much is known about him. From details in his works and other documents a nearly complete biography can be at least tentatively constructed. In addition, Machaut actually wrote about himself. He showed an extraordinary level of self-awareness, writing his own character into his long poems. In some poems the narrator is identified as ‘Guillaume’, and in an allegorical tale called Remède de Fortune (‘Fortune’s Remedy’) the protagonist is a courtier capable, as all good courtiers should be, of writing love poetry; furthermore, seven musical works are woven into the story line (a feature once again reminiscent of the trouvères as well as of an older literary tradition going back to the ancient philosopher Boethius).


After Jehannot de Lescurel, Machaut is the first com­poser of the fourteenth century from whom a coherent body of songs survives. It is in his music that the song forms that were to dominate music for the next 150 years or more can be seen settling into their fixed patterns. Most of his music is secular: a total of 118 songs survive, the largest proportion of which are ballades (42), followed by virelais (33), rondeaux (22), lais (19) and one each of the old forms complainte and chanson royal. Little is known of other secular music immediately before and during Machaut’s time: no songs by Vitry – perhaps his most likely model – appear to survive. So Machaut is always seen as an innovator.

Early Polyphony

The development of Machaut’s style and com­positional practice is clear. His earliest polyphonic songs are in two parts, with a fast-moving upper voice above a slow-moving tenor, much in the manner of a motet (one early song is even isorhythmic, although the rest were freely composed). In...

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