Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 - 1377) was unquestionably the greatest composer and poet of France in the 14th Century. Yes, he was both! though it would be fair to say that he worked longer hours at his poetry. Of the 235 ballades that he wrote, only 42 were set to music. The "ballade" was one of the `fixed forms' that dominated poetry and secular music throughout Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The poetic form of the ballade is a rhymed stanza, with the usual rhyme pattern being ABABBCC. The musical form is contrastingly simple, usually A1A2B. The other fixed forms much used by Machaut were the Rondeau, Virelai, Lai, and Complainte, all of which were both poetic and musical genres; the Lai was a monophonic recitative genre, while the others were almost always polyphonic. Machaut the poet also wrote "Dit", a kind of narrative poem in first-person intimacy. Musicologists and literary scholars have tended to consider the ballades to be the most intellectually `grave' of Machaut's works in French. Machaut also composed sacred music: motets in Latin and a single mass, the Miss de Notre Dame, very probably the first full mass cycle composed by a single person and conceived as a unified opus.
Machaut's musical `vocabulary' was the shared idiom of the ars nova, but Machaut's musical identity is truly unique. If you've heard much of the ars nova repertoire, you can spot a Machaut chanson in the first dozen measures. It's partly the density of his polyphony and partly the daring of his horizontal harmony -- his insistent flow from dissonance to consonance. Machaut is also truly unique in being the only composer before the classical era whose whole musical oeuvre has survived almost completely intact. He knew his worth. He spent much of his later years supervising the copying and illumination of his own works, which are preserved as six treasured manuscripts in the Bibliothéque Nationale de France in Paris. Modern France has shown appropriate appreciation; Machaut's poems are available in various editions, and his complete music has been published in modern notation by Éditions de L'Oiseau-Lyre.
Machaut's Ballades are in two, three, or four voices. Some of them are polytextual. Text underlay was not an exact art in Machaut's era, or in any era before the 19th C, and normally text was merely vaguely attached to the `superius/cantus' line of chansons with a single text. It's been widely assumed that the `tenor' and `contra' lines might have been performed on instruments, most likely on harp, plectrum lute or the bowed-string instruments vielle or rebec. Other musicologists have theorized that the untexted lines might have been sung wordlessly, or perhaps on solfege syllables. Since Machaut left no performance rubrics, it's an opportunity for the modern performer to make aesthetic choices.
Ensemble Musica Nova has selected 13 of Machaut's ballades for this recording, with the preference going to the polytextual and four-voice pieces. That's a brave decision; these are the densest and most demanding of Machaut's works. The ensemble includes five singers, two vielle players, a recorderist and a gothic harper. The ballades are performed in various configurations: a solo voice with various instruments in accompaniment; all instruments; a capella with texts set for all voices; voice-instrument doublings. All those configuartions are justifiable and all of them have been tried before, by other ensembles. Tenor and ensemble director Lucien Kandel is an authoritative musicologist as well as a musician; his notes for this CD are worth reading. Machaut's poems have been included in three forms -- the original 14th C French, modern French, and English. Machaut was a superb artificer of words; his poetry was one of the formative influences on the Middle English poetry of Geoffry Chaucer, and therefore on the whole evolution of the English language.
Both the musicianship and the musicology of Ensemble Musica Nova are outstanding, and yet I have aesthetic reservations about this performance. Thoroughly subjective reservations, I confess, but this is not how I think Machaut should sound. To my ears, EMN has backfilled a "Franco-Flemish" gravitas into the age of chivalry. Their ballades are too solid and sturdy, when they should be delicate and idealized. Their tempi are not only too uniform but also too slow. Machaut's cahracteristic rhythmic devices, hockets for example, can't be phrased effectively as such slow tempi; little decorative notes end up sounding like big notes in chords. I also need to confess that I don't find the voice-instrument configuartions as impressive as a capella performance, however challenging it may be to assign text to the various voices. To my ears, the subtle patterning of consonants and vowels heightens rather than confuses my sense of the songs as meaningful language.
There are fewer than half a dozen CDs exclusively devoted to Machaut's music, this one included, that I regard as worth hearing. My favorite -- the one that best captures the emotional and musical affect of Machaut -- is "Remede de Fortune" by the incomaparble Ensemble Project Ars Nova. Second choice would be a tie: "The Mirror of Narcissus" by Gothic Voices, or "Unrequited" by Liber UnUsualis, or "Motets and Music from the Ivrea Codex" by the Clerks' Group. All of those are completely a capella.There's also "Le Jugement de Roi de Navarre" by Ensemble Gilles Binchois, for that recording a large ensemble of voices, instruments, and a reader. EGB has also recorded Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame, but the 'cleanest' choice for that masterwork is the old standard by the Hilliard Ensemble.
With so short a list, you can understand why I five-star this CD from EMN, even though I criticize it brusquely.