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Missing Miscellanea

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Missing Miscellanea

This is the first time I have missed putting up a Friday Miscellanea in years and years. My apologies! I had a major struggle getting my internet service reconnected after moving houses. But now I am back. Alas, I have not had the time needed to put together the miscellanea, so I will likely do one tomorrow. In the meantime, I offer an alternative post:

The Architecture of the 14th Century Motet

If I were to put a subtitle to this it would read: “and how it shows up in the work of John Cage.” But more on that later. One of the earliest great composers to be well-recorded in history is Guillaume de Machaut, born around 1300 in the neighborhood of Reims in the north of France, now famous for its production of champagne. As a young man he traveled as secretary to John of Luxembourg, a son of the Holy Roman Emperor, but spent the last three decades of his life as a cathedral canon in Reims where his semi-retirement enabled him to devote his time to poetry and music. He died in 1377.

Today Machaut’s poetry is only enjoyed by specialists who tend to put him in a similar rank to Chaucer and Dante, but as a composer he has gained considerable appreciation as early music has grown and found an audience. One of the genres that he was master of is the isorhythmic motet which is a profoundly architectural composition enjoyed especially by the urban literati of the day.

To understand how the 14th century isorhythmic motet was constructed (and by the way, the term isorhythmic meaning “same rhythm” from the Greek, was only invented to describe this music by a German musicologist early in the 20th century), we need two additional terms: color and talea. The color is a sequence of pitches, you might call it a melody, often taken from the melismas found in Gregorian chant. The talea, in contrast, is a sequence of rhythmic values rather similar to the compas in flamenco. The composition uses the pitches and the rhythmic values in a fixed order independent of one another and the implication is that this reflects the cosmological theories of the time which involved the rotation of celestial spheres.

In one of Machaut’s most famous motets, Felix virgo/Inviolata/AD TE SUSPIRAMUS he uses a 32 note color from a Gregorian Alleluia and a 12 note talea taking up 30 tempora or beats.The color has to repeat three times and the talea eight times before they come into alignment again. Notice the double leading tones!



Machaut used similar structures in lighter works such as Lasse/Se j’aime/POURQUOY using a chanson balladé instead of a Gregorian chant for the tenor. “Tenor” at this point in history refers not to the male voice, but to a part of the musical structure, often in longer notes, and taken from a traditional source. Over or around this are built the other polyphonic voices.



By this point those of you familiar with 20th century composers will be fidgeting in your seats thinking, “hmm, doesn’t this sound a lot like the idea of ‘music as a process’ that we find in Steve Reich, or even earlier, didn’t John Cage use similar types of predetermined time units in his early percussion music?” Well, yes, and you bet. Here is a post I did on the Cage piece I am thinking of:


The main difference between the kind of musical texture we find in the 14th century isorhythmic motet and what is going in Cage or Reich is that their music is largely instrumental (referring to the early works by Steve Reich, not the later ones) while in the 14th century motet each sung part has a different text. In the 20th century iterations instrumental timbre is used instead of text to provide contrast and interest.

Machaut also wrote monophonic dance songs in a lighter style—you might think of them as the 14th century equivalent to disco. One of the best known is the catchy Douce dame jolie:



Incidentally, late in his life Machaut wrote a long narrative poem Le Voir Dit containing a number of love letters between himself and a young lady of nineteen years named Peronelle in which he reveals that he often wrote “top-down” that is, composing the melody first and adding accompanying voices later—this is the first time we encounter this now normal practice. Previously music was written “bottom-up” i.e. starting with the structural foundation of the tenor.



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