Wednesday, October 31, 2012

And Now, for Something Completely Different

So, you think "We Will Rock You" is what they played at medieval tournaments?  You think Chaucer had that on his playlist?  Think again.

Below you will hear a beautiful (yes, I went that far) virelai by Guillaume de Machaut.  Because he is one of the earliest composers whose name we know, or at any rate whose name is associated with his compositions, Machaut is an important figure for music historians.  He was also a poet of some stature, one whom the aforementioned Chaucer reportedly admired; he composed his own lyrics for songs as well as writing a good deal of non-musical poetry.

In addition to those claims to fame, Machaut has the distinction of having written what is probably the first complete setting of the Mass by a single composer (certainly it is the first one extant).  You'll be wondering, after my praise for the virelai, what the Mass sounded like.  Let's just say that I find Machaut's secular music more ... digestible? ... than his sacred.

Alright, you really want to hear some of that Mass?  I can't keep a secret.  Here be the "Gloria" from the Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut.  Don't say I didn't warn you!

Phew.  Back to the sweet stuff. I won't swear to the complete authenticity of the recording of the virelai below, but it does give some idea of what 14th century pop actually sounded like. Besides, there's something very ... ancient about it, something that fits today.

If you view the video on YouTube you can see the translation of lyrics there; but in case you don't go that way, here's what the uploader provided us:

I should lead a happy life, sweet creature,
if only you truly realized that you where the cause of all my concern.
Lady of cheerful bearing, pleasing, bright and pure,
often the woe I suffer to serve you loyally  makes me say 'alas!'
And you may be sure that I can in no wise go on living like this,

       if it lasts any longer.
For you are merciless to me and pitilessly obdurate,
and have put such longing into my heart
that it will certainly die a most dismal death,
unless for its relief your mercy is soon ready.

It's kinda sweet, actually.  Anyhoo, have fun tonight, and remember whose eve we're celebrating!


  1. Ahh, Dorian (I think?) mode + percussion... Awesomeness. Going on my list for paper-writing and other adrenaline-related sedentary tasks...

  2. As for the Machaut Mass - it actually apparently served as the inspiration for one of our Christendom choir director's (more digestible) compositions, which we sang often enough that I still know it by heart. ("À la Machaut" is the tempo indicator...)

    1. Oorah for modes! My favorite part of Music in college was when our professor had us all take poems we liked and put them to music, and then play around with different modes. "Jabberwocky" in Mixolydian ... John Donne in Phrygian ... I think it was Phrygian? I get them mixed up now. Anyway, it was a lot of fun.

      As for choir directors' compositions--it probably behooves me not to comment. :)

  3. I think you picked an odd recording of the Mass. There are plenty of prettier ones on youtube.

    That being said, I think sung either way the Mass is pretty cool.

    1. You know, my dear Mr. Mason, sometimes I suspect you of judging music by its dates. :)

    2. P.S. I wouldn't say I "picked" an odd recording, but I'll admit I didn't hunt too hard for another one. What would you recommend?