Guillaume de Machaut, “Messe de Nostre Dame”
Guillaume de Machaut’s “La Messe de Nostre Dame” was a revelation to me on first hearing. It is a work that, while very old – a forerunner of liturgical works to come – seemed to me to be somewhat “modern.” I am not sure what I mean by that, but it is a unique, powerful, and arresting work – not just a period piece or historical curiosity.
Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300- 1377) was both a poet and a composer.
— Roger W. Smith
According to Wikipedia:
Machaut’s cyclic setting of the Mass, identified in one source as the Messe de Nostre Dame (“Mass of Our Lady”), was composed in the early 1360’s, probably for Rheims Cathedral.
Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) is a polyphonic mass. … Widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of medieval music and of all religious music, it is historically notable as the earliest complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer (in contrast to earlier compilations such as the Tournai Mass) and conceived of as a unit.
Machaut probably was familiar with the Tournai Mass since Machaut’s Mass shares many stylistic features with it, including textless interludes.
Some scholars hypothesize that, contrary to popular belief, Machaut did not actually come to work for the Reims Cathedral until the end of the 1350’s, composing the mass as an act of devotion and dedication marking his arrival in the precinct. In conformity with the wills of Guillaume and his brother Jean, also a canon at the Cathedral, the mass was believed to have been transformed into a memorial service for them following their deaths. However, neither the specific nature of its performance (if such a performance exists) nor the service the Mass was prepared for has been conclusively ascertained.
It is possible that Machaut was familiar with the Tournai Mass, an even earlier polyphonic 14th-century mass setting in which each movement is believed to have been written independently by different composers. The Gloria and Credo of the Messe de Nostre Dame exhibit some similarities to the Tournai mass, such as textless musical interludes, simultaneous style, and long melismatic Amens. The other four movements of Machaut’s mass are composed in motet style with mass text.
Nevertheless, the mass can be said to be stylistically consistent, and certainly the chosen chants are all celebrations of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Also adding weight to the claim that the mass is cyclic is the possibility that the piece was written or assembled for performance at a specific celebration. The possibility that it was for the coronation of Charles V, which was once widely accepted, is thought unlikely in modern scholarship. The composer’s intention that the piece be performed as one entire mass setting makes the Messe de Nostre Dame generally considered a cyclic composition.
Whether or not Machaut’s mass is indeed cyclic is contested; after lengthy debate, musicologists are still deeply divided. However, there is a consensus that this mass is at best a forerunner to the later 15th-century cyclic masses by the likes of Josquin des Prez. Machaut’s mass differs from these in the following ways: (1) he does not hold a tonal center throughout the entire work, as the mass uses two distinct modes (one for the Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo, another for Sanctus, Agnus and Ite missa est); (2) there is no extended melodic theme that clearly runs through all the movements, and the mass does not use the parody technique; (3) there is considerable evidence that this mass was not composed in one creative motion. That the movements may have been placed together does not mean they were conceived so.
The Messe de Nostre Dame consists of 5 movements, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, followed by the dismissal Ite, missa est. The tenor of the Kyrie is based on Vatican Kyrie IV, the Sanctus and Agnus correspond to Vatican Mass XVII and the Ite is on Sanctus VIII. The Gloria and Credo have no apparent chant basis, although they are stylistically related to one another.
The Messe de Nostre Dame is for four voices rather than the more common three. Machaut added a contratenor voice that moved in the same low range as the tenor, sometimes replacing it as the lowest voice.
In the liturgy of the Mass, the items of the Ordinary are not performed consecutively, but are separated from one another by prayers and chants. Machaut’s unification of these items into an artistic whole is the earliest instance of an Ordinary of the Mass setting that is stylistically coherent and was also conceived as a unit. This gesture imposed on the Ordinary a previously unconsidered abstract artistic idea, and potentially influenced composers throughout the ages to continue setting the Ordinary to stylistically coherent music.