Guillaume de Machaut Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Generally acclaimed as the most important figure of the French ars nova, Machaut—poet, musician, courtier, and diplomat—was among the first to compose polyphonic settings of the fixed forms of medieval poetry (ballade, rondeau, virelay), to write songs for four voices, and to compose an integrated setting of the entire Ordinary of the Mass.

Early Life

Guillaume de Machaut was born around the beginning of the fourteenth century, most probably in the village of Machault in the Champagne region of France, not far from the cathedral city of Reims. Some music historians surmise that he may have been born in Reims itself, but as practically nothing is known of his early life, such speculations remain mere guesses; one scholar, however, has traced the existence of a Wuillaume Machaux—who may have been the poet’s father—at Reims around 1310. The little information available indicates that Machaut was educated by clerics in an ecclesiastical venue, probably in Paris and Reims, and that he eventually earned a master of arts degree, although he never took Holy Orders.

Sometime around 1323, Machaut joined the entourage of John of Luxembourg, the blind King of Bohemia, a well-admired ruler and exemplar of chivalry and courtesy and a lover of war and the battlefield. For the next several years, Machaut’s life involved constant travel—primarily because John involved himself in various military campaigns, although much of the travel was simply for entertainment—to places such as France, Lithuania, Poland, Prussia, and Silesia. One of Machaut’s earliest known works, Bone pastor Guillerme (1324), a Latin motet celebrating the installation of Guillaume de Trie as the new Archbishop of Reims, was written during his early years in King John’s service. Another work, Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne, although undated, was almost certainly written during the years Machaut spent with John. As clerk, personal secretary, and general assistant to King John, Machaut frequently benefited from the king’s influence on Popes John XXII and Benedict XII: In 1330, he was named canon at Verdun; in 1332, he became canon at Arras; and in 1337, he was awarded a more desirable canonicate in Reims. Machaut appears to have settled in Reims in the late 1330’s, leaving that city only to accompany King John on occasional journeys. After the king’s heroic suicide in the battle at Crécy in 1346, Machaut continued his association with the royal family through King John’s daughter, Bonne of Luxembourg, who later became the wife of John II of France. He also maintained close ties with others nobles, among them Charles of Navarre, Jean de France, the future Charles V of France, and Amadeus VI of Savoy.

Life’s Work

Although Machaut remained linked with the royal courts of Europe, he spent the rest of his life as a canon at Reims Cathedral, having relinquished his other canonicates. Evidence points to the probability that the Reims canons—who were either tonsured clerics, as Machaut probably was, or priests who had taken Holy Orders—functioned as choristers for cathedral services. As churchmen, they were bound by innumerable rules of behavior and dress: They were required to dine together at the refectory on certain days of the week as well as certain holy days; they had to reside within the city walls of Reims; and they had to sing a minimum of thirty-two masses during the year. Although this restrictive and semicloistered life in a cathedral city was markedly different from the exciting years of foreign travel with King John, it provided Machaut with both the time and the artistic environment in which to write poetry and compose music.

Machaut’s Remède de Fortune—a long poem generally considered an early work, although it is difficult to assign specific dates to much of Machaut’s output—is a didactic narrative in which a lover passionately delineates the physical and moral beauty of the lady he adores and asserts that his love for her has instilled in him all the virtues. A collection of examples of both the lyric forms he favored (ballade, lai, rondeau, and virelay) and older forms (complainte and chanson royale) which he used only in this work, the Remède de Fortune is something of an anthology of fourteenth century lyric forms. Many of the individual forms look back to trouvère compositions of the thirteenth century with their occasional reliance on the old rhythmic modes and stanzaic forms and in their three-voice structure, which suggests French polyphony of the age preceding that of Machaut; the ballades, however, have four voices—a decided innovation—although the fourth voice may have been intended as an alternate to one of the other three.

La Fonteinne amoureuse (written between 1360 and 1362) has attracted critical attention for its treatment of the story of Paris of Troy and his judgment of the three goddesses. In this poem, the narrator overhears a young nobleman lamenting his unrequited love. The two men discuss at length the fountain of love from which the nobleman has drunk, and then they fall asleep. They both dream that Venus appears and recounts Paris’ story and then produces the lady whom the nobleman loves. The lovers exchange rings, the dream fades, and the two men awaken. On the nobleman’s finger is the lady’s ring, and he vows to spend his life serving Venus and building a temple in her honor. Although this poem has traditionally been seen as a flattering portrait of Jean de France on the eve of his marriage, recent scholarship refutes that theory by indicating that the poem is, in reality, a critical look at the results of a nobleman’s devoting himself to love instead of to the responsibilities of his position as a member of the nobility.

Around 1364, Machaut...

(The entire section is 2413 words.)