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Music In The Post-Classical World

The Ars Nova in 14th Century France

Peter Kun Frary


The prodigious rise of secular music in fourteenth century France and the Low Countries is known as the Ars nova, meaning new art in Latin. Trecento is the preferred term when referring to this period in Italy.

Guillaume de Machaut in a fourteenth century French miniature | Nature offers Machaut (far right) three of her children: Sense, Rhetoric, and Music | Wikimedia Commons

The secular emphasis in Ars nova music was due to the declining power and influence of the Church and State. Three rival popes battled it out among themselves from 1378-1417, diluting the social and political power of the Church. As the Holy Roman Empire retracted, thousands of innocents died in battles between feudal landlords during the 100 Years War (1337-1453), undermining the perceived authority of the noble class. During the mid-fourteenth century 20 million souls perished—one third of Europe's population—from the Black Death (bubonic plague). Such great pestilence and calamity resulted in questioning of the authority and protection of both Church and State.

Musical Style

The music of fourteenth century France demonstrated increased intellectual refinement, new concepts of rhythm and meter and an emphasis on both secular and sacred forms. Secular vocal music was often written in the vernacular and stressed emotional expression and sensuality. This new musical sophistication is reflected in notational and theory treatises of the day, e.g., Philippe de Vitry's Ars nova notandi (c.1322).

To modern ears raised on popular song the frequent syncopations and cross rhythms (conflicting meter patterns, e.g., 4/4 against 3/4) of the Ars nova may sound confusing. Realize these changes represent a break from the simpler chant and troubadour rhythms of earlier times and a gateway to the Renaissance.

The independent polyphonic lines of the Ars nova can also be jarring to modern ears. Melodic lines were composed in a linear fashion and without harmonic considerations save for beginnings of phrases and cadences. Thus, strong dissonances are often heard in the polyphonic works of the Ars nova.

Traditional sacred music such as the motet and mass continued but new secular forms such as the ballade, rondeau and virelai appeared in France and the Low Countries. These secular forms were largely derived from the verse structure of poetry, e.g., the pattern of refrain (ritornello) and verse (stanza). For example, the rondeau, one of the most important musical and poetic forms of the Ars nova has eight lines of text in a verse structure of ab ab ab ab.

Guillaume de Machaut, Poésies | Machaut was celebrated as both a poet and musician | BnF Gallica: MS A f.221r (detail) | (c. 1372-1377) | Paris, France

Guillaume de Machaut

The composer, poet and cleric, Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), is regarded as the leading composer of the Ars nova. He was equally adept as a poet and his poetry was studied and imitated long after the Ars nova musical style faded from popularity.

Machaut spend much of his life working for royal families, initially serving of John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, as chaplain and secretary. He was rewarded for this service with an appointment in 1337 as canon of Reims Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims). After John’s death, he served the French royal family and worked as an official at Reims Cathedral until his death in 1377.

Machaut’s music is preserved in 32 manuscripts, many beautifully decorated, and represent a sizeable percentage of the surviving music from the late Middle Ages. He was the first composer known to write a polyphonic setting of the mass ordinary.

Page from Poésies de Guillaume de Machault et autres | c. 1301-1400 | ark:/12148/btv1b550058905 | Bibliothèque nationale de France

Although an ordained priest, the mainstay of Machaut’s music was secular, mainly love songs for one or two voices and instrumental accompaniment. He was highly influential in the development of the motet and secular song forms such as the rondeau, virelai and ballade. The wide distribution of Machaut’s music manuscripts reveals that he was highly esteemed throughout Europe.

Machaut's Puis qu'en oubli (Since I am forgotten) is a love song based on the form of the rondeau.

Puis qu'en oubli sui de vous, dous amis,
Vie amoureuse et joie a Dieu commant.
Mar vi le jour que m'amour en vous mis,
Puis qu'en oubli sui de vous, dous amis.
Mais ce tenray que je vous ay promis,
C'est que ja mais n'aray nul autre amant.
Puis qu'en oubli sui de vous, dous amis,
Vie amoureuse et joie a Dieu commant.

Since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend,
To a love life, and to happiness, I bid goodbye.
Unlucky was the day I put my love in you,
Since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend.
Yet I will keep what I have promised you,
Which is that never will I have another lover.
Since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend,
To a love life, and to happiness, I bid goodbye.

Puis qu'en oubli (Since I am forgotten) by Guillaume de Machaut | Vocal melody with 2 lower voices (fiddles) |

Douce Dame Jolie by Guillaume de Machaut is an example of a virelai. The virelai usually has three stanzas, and a refrain that is stated before the first stanza and again after each. Machaut's original manuscript was monophonic, expecting performers to improvise accompaniment voices.

Sweet, lovely lady
for God's sake do not think
that any has sovereignty
over my heart, but you alone.

For always, without treachery
Have I you, and humbly
All the days of my life
Without base thoughts.
Alas, I am left begging
For hope and relief;
For my joy is at its end
Without your compassion.
Sweet, lovely lady....

But your sweet mastery
My heart so harshly,
Tormenting it
And binding
In unbearable love,
[My heart] desires nothing
but to be in your power.
And still, your own heart
renders it no relief.
Sweet, lovely lady....

And since my malady
Will not
Be annulled
Without you, Sweet Enemy,
Who takes
Delight of my torment
With clasped hands I beseech
Your heart, that forgets me,
That it mercifully kill me
For too long have I languished.
Sweet, lovely lady....

Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.

Qu'adès sans tricherie
Vous ay et humblement
Tous les jours de ma vie
Sans villain pensement.
Helas! et je mendie
D'esperance et d'aïe;
Dont ma joie est fenie,
Se pité ne vous en prent.
Douce dame jolie.

Mais vo douce maistrie
Mon cuer si durement
Qu'elle le contralie
Et lie
En amour tellement
Qu'il n'a de riens envie
Fors d'estre en vo baillie;
Et se ne li ottrie
Vos cuers nul aligement.
Douce dame jolie.

Et quant ma maladie
Ne sera nullement
Sans vous, douce anemie,
Qui lie
Estes de mon tourment,
A jointes mains deprie
Vo cuer, puis qu'il m'oublie,
Que temprement m'ocie,
Car trop langui longuement.
Douce dame jolie...

Douce Dame Jolie by Guillaume de Machaut | Vocal melody with 3 voices played on fiddle, pipe and lute |

Messe de Nostre Dame

While Machaut was principally known as a poet and composer of love songs, he also wrote sacred music. In fact, he hit a milestone in sacred music by composing Messe de Nostre Dame (Notre Dame Mass), the first polyphonic mass by a known composer. Messe de Nostre Dame was likely written for performance at Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, a massive Gothic cathedral, where he worked as a Church official.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims | Domenico Quaglio (c.1827) | Museum der bildenden Künste | Wikimedia Commons

Cantus Firmus

Within each movement of the Messe de Nostre Dame lies a pre-existing melody taken from Gregorian chant. This pre-existing melody is called the cantus firmus. Machaut created each movement of the Mass by composing counterpoint around the cantus firmus. The cantus firmus was considered to be an essential link to the ancient traditions of the Church.

Messe de Nostre Dame is scored for four male voices. Mass was sung by men and/or boys because women were not allowed to sing in public services during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Thus, soprano and alto parts were performed by prepubescent boys or countertenors (men specializing in falsetto singing).

Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy on us)
Christe eleison (Christ have mercy on us)
Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy on us)

Notre Dame Mass, Kyrie | Guillaume de Machaut


Ars nova, rondeau, virelai, cantus firmus, countertenor

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved