MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame
In our previous unit we listened to a well-known secular song by Guillaume de Machaut, and I told you how he is the most important composer of the Medieval period.

In this lesson we will look at his groundbreaking contribution to the world of sacred music, the Messe de Nostre Dame or Notre Dame Mass [ca. 1360]. There are many ways in which Machaut is writing "the music of the future" with this piece, as he sets a standard that composers will follow throughout the Renaissance.

Once you've looked at this page, Assignment #10 will ask you a few questions. As always, that link opens in a new tab, so you can go back and forth.

The first complete polyphonic mass

The main reason this work is notable is that it is the first complete polyphonic Mass.

We've talked a little bit about how Mass was the most important religious service conducted by the Medieval church. It has a lot of different parts to it that are painstakingly scheduled, and a "high mass" would have been sung all the way through. Let me make a table that divides the parts of mass between items in the Proper, which would change from day to day, and the Ordinary which is said exactly the same way every time.

PROPER of the Mass
(texts change frequently)
ORDINARY of the Mass
(texts are fixed)
or Tract
Agnus Dei

Machaut wrote the Messe de Nostre Dame for the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Reims, France. (This is a different Notre Dame from the more famous one in Paris!)

Perhaps intending for his music to be as practical and re-usable as possible, he worked his way through all of the fixed parts of the Mass, discarding the changeable parts. The result was a five-movement sequence that would become a standard template for future composers.

I. Kyrie
II. Gloria
III. Credo
IV. Sanctus
V. Agnus Dei

The polyphonic Mass is one of the most important kinds of musical work for the next two centuries! Every good sacred composer writes at least a few of them.

So let's pause here and listen to the first two minutes or so of Machaut's Notre Dame Mass. This is another Kyrie eleison, a prayer that we are now very familiar with. The writing is super melismatic, stretching out the words, and you'll hear how the music has a very "big" sound, compared to other works we've heard.

Track Links: Spotify YouTube Naxos Apple Music
Album Links: Amazon CD Amazon Mp3 Spotify Naxos

The wide vocal range

Our last bit of polyphonic music, Pérotin's Viderunt omnes, presented four very similar vocal parts that made a relatively narrow ribbon of sound. Machaut's style is different. He uses four parts that are more like the modern concepts of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Spreading the voices out like this makes a big sound and delivers more impact!

Now, as soon as I say "soprano" and "alto" some students get excited, because they think that this music is no longer gender-segregated, that it's mixing men and women together. Not so fast! At this time (and throughout the Renaissance as well) it was still fairly standard to have all-male choirs. They just used choirboys or men who were good at singing high to cover the top parts.

In our modern era it is the performing ensemble's choice as to whether they want to present the music in an all-male format or if they want to use women to sing the high parts. This recording that we are using today is all dudes. Play it again and see if you can tell.

More subtle cantus firmus technique

Another way that Machaut's technique is a huge advance over something like Pérotin is in the way he uses his cantus firmus. You may recall that the cantus firmus part is taken from pre-existing material and used as the "foundation" for a new piece. In the Pérotin this part acted pretty weird, taking each note from the original chant and stretching it out into a long drone.

Machaut's cantus firmus doesn't stick out like that. Instead he integrates it seamlessly into the polyphonic texture, and it runs at the same speed as the other parts.

I made a youtube video that shows how Machaut's technique works:

Music of the future

So those are three ways that the Messe de Nostre Dame is hugely innovative.

  1. It sets the standard for a polyphonic mass as a five-part sequence.
  2. It presents a very "big" choral sound with a wide vocal spread.
  3. It has a sophisticated cantus firmus technique that is miles ahead of the old composers of organum.

It is tempting to declare Machaut to be the first Renaissance composer! However, there are still some aspects of this piece that make it sound Medieval. I'll get into this more in the next unit, but the overall sound of this work is just a little too "open" or "cold" to be a Renaissance work. I'll tell you what I mean in more technical terms next time.

Regardless, this is an important milestone in music history that delivers a lot of impact. It's definitely worth listening to. Here is the Kyrie track one more time, and I'd recommend giving it one more spin on your way out of this unit.

Track Links: Spotify YouTube Naxos Apple Music
Album Links: Amazon CD Amazon Mp3 Spotify Naxos

Assignment #10

OK, Assignment #10 asks you a few questions about this material. As always the link will open in a separate tab.

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