Taking Liberties : Björn Schmelzer & Machaut’s “Messe de Nostre Dame”


The La Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut has been called the most important polyphonic composition of the 14th century.  There are at least 35 recordings dating back to 1951, although most of those pre-1980 are hard to find and if found only available on vinyl.

There appears to be general agreement now that the production of the six-movement composition preserved by the manuscripts was not stimulated by mere whim or fancy on the part of Machaut, but was generated either by the incidence of some occasion of specific ceremonial or celebration, or by the appearance of some specific opportunity for ongoing performance.

portrait-of-charles-v-rom-the-coronation-bookThe notion that Machaut composed his Mass specifically for the coronation ceremonies of Charles V goes back at least as far as a library catalogue of 1769, which does at least qualify the claim: “Messe mise en musique a 4 parties, et que Ton pretend avoir ete chante au sacre de Charles V” [Mass set to music in four parts, which is claimed to have been sung at the coronation of Charles V].   It is a natural assumption to make since the Reims Cathedral had been where French kings had their coronations.  But despite the consensus that the mass was written in the early 1360s, there is no firm evidence for the coronation theory.

However, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (1990) and Anne W. Robertson (1992) have provided strong evidence that the mass was composed for a foundation made by Guillaume and Jean de Machaut for the commemoration of their deaths. [Lawrence Earp, Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research (Routledge Music Bibliographies).]

When musicians thought the mass was written for the coronation of King Charles V the mass was performed with large choirs and brass.  Now that we have come to learn that this supposition was incorrect the mass is done in either of three ways:

  • Performing only the six polyphonic mass sections, back-to-back, and lasting about 30 minutes;
  • Performing the work as a functional mass, i.e. with liturgical chant inserted (or sometimes organ selections), observing all the appropriate repeats, lasting about an hour;
  • Some mix of the two.

And no matter which arrangement of the mass is used it has been recorded with or without instruments; OVPP or with some doubling, but the doubling does not exceed three to a part and if not OVPP it is usually no more than two per part and not always for every part.

Björn Schmelzer and Graindelavoix take the mass in an entirely new direction based upon a rather imaginative interpretation of the idea of the endowment/memorial.


In the past I have been thrown off by the initial strangeness of the interpretation.  But as I remove preconceptions about the work and just listen, I am struck by the beauty of the sound that is being produced.  I would still like to understand more about what Schmelzer is trying to accomplish with this interpretation, however his essay in the booklet accompanying the recording is not much help.  He says that he is interested in “conjuring up the voices of the past,” and pointing to the contrast between the familiar and the strange – one that emphasizes the individuality of the singers rather than a homogeneous ensemble sound.

His essay is filled with text such as:

bjorn-schmelzer“What, for instance, would have happened in historical musicology and the performance of early music if notions like Warburg’s Pathosformel (pathos formula) or Nachleben (afterlife) had been introduced in the early phase of its scientific development?  As with art history, even if attempts were made to bury these ambiguous and dynamic concepts in favour of more clearly defined notions such as “symbolic form” and the “euchrony of time”, the concepts would still be present, in a “phantom state”, continuing to haunt the further development of historical musicology. Unfortunately for music and its science, these concepts are now only to be imagined.”

I don’t really have a clear idea of what “euchrony of time” means, my best guess is that Schmelzer is getting at the idea of looking back at a cultural artifact such as Machaut’s Messe and positioning it within our modern age and refracting the music through that lens.

He goes on:

“And yet, the two fundamental concepts of Warburg, Nachleben and Pathosformel, might have been enough to save musicology and performance – or at least keep them operating together dynamically. Nachleben traces the fundamental afterlife of repertories, their continuation and mingling, their appearance in places where you would not expect them or in times where you thought them to be extinct. Pathosformel is the organization of affects and animation, how they impact and influence the body, and the conservation and abstraction of these affects within a diagram that regulates the impact of pathos at the moment of execution.”

Schmelzer bases his ideas about afterlife of the work, and everything he reads into this idea, on the conjecture about an endowment either from or on behalf of the Machaut brothers for a regular memorial performance of the mass as the Saturday Lady Mass in Reims cathedral near the altar by the Roelle.

What this amounts to in specifics is:

  • Generally slow tempo
  • Liberal application of accidentals
  • A rather large ensemble, applying exotic ornamentation

All adding up to a performance like no other you may have heard, with the possible exception of Ensemble Organum/Peres from 1996.


No amount of creative theorizing should matter when listening to a recording of the work.  The performance will land or it won’t, and people will agree or disagree depending upon their taste.

So, I am of two minds concerning the recording of La Messe by Björn Schmelzer and Graindelavoix.  On the one hand his reliance on the idea that because Machaut may have left instructions and set aside money for the performance of his mass as a memorial for his brother and himself, and intended or at least imagined the mass being performed long after his death by musicians of later generations whose stylistic tendencies would lead to very different performances of the mass than what he was used to – and was okay with that – rests on a shaky foundation.

However, on the other hand, if we divorce ourselves from the rationale he cites in his essay and simply listen to the music he has made, we are stuck by the sheer beauty of the sound he produces with his group.

Caveat: if you enjoyed the recording by Ensemble Organum led by Marcel Pérès, and the kind of throaty singing and “Eastern” ornamentation his Corsican singers embraced, then there is a good chance you would also enjoy Schmelzer’s recording.

Machaut : Messe de Nostre Dame
Graindelavoix | Björn Schmelzer, dir.
Glossa Platinum 32110
Playing time: 73′
Recording date: March 2015 (Antwerp); released: 2016
Performers: François Testory, Paul De Troyer, Marius Peterson, Björn Schmelzer, Adrian Sîrbu, David Hernandez, Tomàs Maxé, Bart Meynckens, Arnout Malfliet, Jean-Christophe Brizard (voices)

5 thoughts on “Taking Liberties : Björn Schmelzer & Machaut’s “Messe de Nostre Dame”

  1. Dear Mr Leone,

    Thanks a lot for writing about our Machaut cd. I normally don’t react directly on reviews, but because I appreciate your approach and at the same time you put some relevant question marks at the articulation of my work, I take the opportunity to clarify some points. I will try to put your remarks in the wider field of critical voices towards my approach and try to answer them from within this field, so please consider them as my open response and not as a direct statement to the specific points you make.

    Some of them were also put forward in the past by other critics. For example the refusal of the ‘strange’ (and apparently for some people incomprehensible) booklets I fabricate, which texts supposedly blur more the interpretation on the recording than inform it…Well, in fact that’s exactly what I would like to achieve. For me the booklet should be an accomplice of the recording, not a legitimation of it.

    In ‘early music’, people often expect from the musicians to legitimize themselves, strangely they don’t expect you to be creative, productive, imaginative. These categories are in the context of early music mostly received with suspicion and are a possible threat of the ‘authenticity’ of the performance. Imagination contradicts or covers in this view the ‘historical truth’ lurking beneath the soil of time…

    These booklet texts are from the beginning a love and hate issue. Some critics like to see them fitting in a sort of pedagogical, paternalistic program, a problem which contaminates (and finally will kill?) in my opinion the whole classical music world. No department of the arts looks so much like elementary school as classical music: is it because classical music was a product of the Bildung regime that it likes so much to keep this Bildung mentality?

    Opposed to that, I try to write a booklet who makes the situation more complex, but I hope also more rich, for the listener, instead of reducing our work to some biographical liner notes. I would like that the listener feels triggered and challenged. The booklet texts are for those who are intrigued, who want more, or those who like to search for the layers in the musical machine. In this perspective some trust or even good will is needed….I’m lucky that I found a label as crazy as myself that let me write all these essays and is even happy to release it, I’m really grateful to Glossa because I know other labels would never give this freedom.

    At the same time, most of what i say in the booklets is like hammering on the same nail. The theme or concept of ‘euchronism’ versus anachronism is coming back all the time, it’s a thread through all our recordings. You ask what this ‘euchrony’ means: well, I explain it literally on the first page p.6, between brackets behind the term: “the historicist obsession with banning every single element of anachronism”. What do I mean with this? Consciously or not, most early music approach operates with some sort of cliché or common sense scalpel, starting with present time and cutting off everything what is not proper or contemporary to its proper time. What we keep in the end is the result of a pseudo-historicist filleting…To say it very bluntly: where is all the dirt of time (scholars would maybe call it : the anachronisms) ? and what happens if we bring it in again (this is a very fragile work which asks for a lot of performative trial and error), creating a musical performance which is not primordially focused on historical information but on historical transference, and what, in this transference, is, intentionally or not, cut away, exorcized. In fact in this sense I fight against early music as ‘modernism projected into the past’ (as if in the past everything was contemporary with its own time…what a weird idea). I’m interested in the fact that there is no existing ur-text, no existing consciousness of a first group of performers who establish a normative performance practice, and that in this sense we as performers are so to say the same as all the others who came right after,…or differently expressed: it’s a sort of historical absurdism to cut off some original group of completely informed and self-identifying people from a next generation who knows already less or starts to transform it, and so and so forth till now, till us, the least informed, the furthest away from truth…

    If people don’t know or pretend not to know in the 20th century, it’s mostly because they don’t care or because aesthetical strategies are in charge, often also because they don’t really listen to the material: they appropriate it, which is the opposite of reclaiming or fabulating the past: I really believe that the material speaks or even screams to us, but we have to find the right machine to capture and produce the sounds.

    What I would like to show is that even Machaut didn’t know, so to say, what he was shaping, what he was doing…and yet, he did it…his main concern was the keep his things going, to give them immortality, afterlife. To keep them moving.

    We underestimate this anthropological need to continue things, to let them flow in a trans-generational way, people are really busy with that, it’s about history, nothing to do with New Age. And Machaut put himself in a tradition, but cracked it, as I called it, he didn’t break with the tradition but cracked it from within, using all the tools he got from the tradition: therefore artists can be in a tradition and revolutionary at the same time.

    In musicology one of the big debates is the problem of musical ‘works’: the Messe de Nostre Dame is probably such a work, a monument etc, but at the same time musicologists know that this notion of monument and even of work is completely not functioning in the context of these early repertoires. And why is that? The main reason is because they were made in a logic of continuation, of afterlife and this means: they were made to fit in operative practices. And what we call now scores, are in fact diagrammatic writings connected witch operative knowledge, as I explain in many of my booklets. In concreto, musicians would not perform a ‘work’ like Messe de Nostre Dame without what we would call now, arrangement or embellishment: respecting a composition would mean adding, enriching, with flowers, with ‘merveilles’ as the 14th century French would say, of which yes, exotica, were certainly a standard element, but this is only a superficial aspect of how they would make of the composition an event that would connect memory, the past, and the present, the embodiment.

    I like so much to put the art historian Aby Warburg in this context, because he is certainly a writer historical musicologists should learn to know. He is someone who opens up the field of art, of history and also of musical repertoires of the past.

    In fact my approach is nothing new, in anthropology, literature, even in art history this is already more than ten years part of a new, even historicist, approach.

    In art history this was clearly understood by Warburg who was able to combine a historicist approach with something that seems to be contradictory to it, but certainly not a cheap universalist approach: in fact his idea of the afterlife and agency of images was completely historicist in a way, but offered exactly the toolbox to go beyond the paradoxes of historicism for works of art or performance, works that continue in time, moreover this continuation is fundamental for their condition.

    So, in fact, I don’t understand what people mean when they claim that my work is subjective or that i would take too much liberties: liberties towards what? subjective towards which sort of presumed objectivity? On the contrary, for me doing early music is not a question of pleasure or ‘we can do what we want because the composers are all dead’ (claimed by Leech-Wilkinson in his highly problematic ‘The Modern Invention of Medieval Music’). The whole confusion emerges because of the so called objective performances, which are in fact just performances that don’t touch or affect us and in this sense contain an aura of pseudo-objectivity…like a dead body that doesn’t move and can be approached so called objectively, scientifically…And this pseudo-objectivity is of course coming from 19th century positivism and goes hand in hand with the necessity of historicism…But historicism also changed so much, and it is as if people in early music didn’t know. Let me just recall Stephen Greenblatt’s opening sentence of his 1988 historical bestseller Shakespearean Negotiations “I began with the desire to speak with the dead.” My claim to let the dead speak in early music comes in fact very late, painfully late even, after all that….

    Next issue, this so called historically informed approach: historical research is not only needed for historical information, in order to enlarge our knowledge of the past but rather to differentiate what is said, claimed, stated in a certain time and what is done, perceived, practiced, operated on, etc…something Foucault taught us so aptly….one can know a lot about the Middle Ages, well, there is still the music which can function as a last test case…or the other way round: this music, when performed, gives us an idea of space, virtual space, sound space, but also about motion, tension, dynamics, consonance and dissonance, desire, lines, texts sung together, affects, melodies etc etc… suddenly there is the music which erases all our knowledge: it seemed all not that right, or at least things seemed to be still differently connected, with other dynamics and dimensions. We listen and we say: if this is possible, if we hear this, we need to change our visions, we need to change ourselves…

    At the same time we maybe should all become anthropologist and try to speak with the dead and experience that evoking the music of the past is not some exclusivity of western culture, on the contrary: my claim is that early music exactly only makes any sense if we reconnect it with other worldwide practices of listening to the past, listening to the ancestral voices (who are engraved in the musical diagrams they left for us) etc…in the sense, early music is not the modernist separation of the present (our present) and a historical (unknown) past, but exactly the opposite: it is the potential to evoke the past as music (quality time) with present voices which are not so much expressing themselves but rather revealing (past) others: a sort of conditional, historical ventriloquism…

    Quite aptly musicians of early music often call themselves, with modest intentions, ‘mediums’ of the composers and repertoires of the past: voilà, here, without even knowing it, the claim is made, early music is an art related to spiritualism and why not, to magic or divination (which is, in a way, also a sort of score reading), and this is why I talk in the booklet about the art of making the ‘transfer’. Anthropologists, busy with divination etc, know what it means to evoke the voices of the past, which should be at the same time familiar and foreign, so that something affective emerges, a message so affectively strong that it changes something in the listener. Here we are, that’s all what I wanted to say. Respecting Machaut and his music, for me, means trying to make this transfer so that something would happen while listening or performing.

    It is our so called modernism and pseudo-rationalism (applied on terrains which have little to do with rationality) which blocks our understanding or perception. That’s all.

    That’s why I mentioned Marcel Pérès, because to me he is one of the only figures of early music who speaks with the dead and in this sense opens up the field for reclaiming the past, fabulating it, articulating it’s unheard potentials, washed away by the sponge of western history. People think maybe it’s about aesthetics, doing something what looks like what he did, but for me it’s a question of politics and I explain also this in the end of my booklet text, apparently it’s alien talk on early music planet. It’s a very important element because it is what early music performance can do: changing affectively our vision of the past, opening up the past, showing that it co-exists with our present. And more, we can reclaim the past, give it back to those collectives who were banished outside the glorious history of Western humanity (there is even so much quality of the non-human to discover in those repertoires by the way…), of which classical music is still all too often a symbol. Marcel Pérès said somewhere something interesting: why is it weird or wrong to do Machaut with Corsican singers who objectively are still with one or even two legs in a chant tradition, which anyhow has maybe more to say about polyphonic practices from earlier times, than a conservatory education of which you know objectively that the whole vocal, bodily approach and even more important, the whole aesthetic and affective approach is a clear modern denial and cut with the past? Singing early music with conservatory voices is apparently professional and neutral (implied: because it’s eurocentric?) but when you work in this repertoire with European singers who have a phrasing expertise in singing glissandi and ornaments you deliver yourself to the dangerous transgression of ‘orientalism’. (There is still a story to write about the false accusations of ‘orientalism’ for example in early music performance by western modernist musicologists, I guess nobody dares to go on this slippery domain…)

    More important, Pérès shows that there is no direct line from Machaut towards modernist music (a line Western scholars still implicitly and all to often draw and which is revealed through their common sense knowledge and aesthetical preconceptions) without the bending, the cracking and continuous bifurcation of that line passing through ‘minor voices’, and ‘minor voice techniques’ who realize something of Machaut’s notation what was never heard before and challenge all our preconceived historical and aesthetical ideas.

    I hope my notes shed some little light on the complexity implied in the Machaut booklet text and I thank you for the opportunity to reflect on your comments.

    Björn Schmelzer

    1. Mr. Schmelzer,

      First, let me thank you for your detailed and substantive comment to the points I raised in my article on the Machaut mass and specifically your recording of it. I am honored that you took the time to respond.

      Seen in the light in which you placed the booklet essay, I can appreciate better what you accomplished with the text. As you admit, it is something different from what is usually included and for those who may not familiar with your other recordings, you might understand how the text would seem somewhat confusing.

      I think the basis of my confusion over the word “euchrony” is related to my attempting to understand the etymology of the word, similarly to euphony (“good sound”), for example: “eu- (good, genuine) + -chrony (time) = “good/genuine time”; a possible meaning which is unclear. But now that you explain it as an antonym to anachronism, it makes sense and is an idea with which I agree.

      You are absolutely right when you question the idea of “taking liberties” with the work. What is meant to take liberties when there is no real objective version from which you are departing?

      However, this idea of taking liberties is all bound up, I think, with the performance history of the mass, as well as, the musicological scholarship that informs those performances. Going back to Andrew Parrott, and including Mary Berry, Antoine Guerber, Dominique Vellard, and even Lucien Kandel, there is a precedence of decisions (how are accidentals applied, where to pitch the work, the singers chosen, etc.) that have been brought to bear on the performance that will lead a prospective listener to cultivate expectations for any new recording. When those expectations are frustrated, the listener will want to know why. So, we look to the booklet essay for answers.

      We look for answer to questions such as, “Why use Corsican singers?” Or, “What does their tradition of elaborate ornamentation have to do with Machaut?” These questions are not addressed directly in your essay.

      Please, do not think I do not enjoy your recording; because I do, and consider it even important. But I cannot help but feel that your recording represents somewhat of a detour from the legacy of previous recordings. This is how I think it can be said that you took liberties.

      David Leone

  2. Dr Mr. Leone,

    The graindelavoix recording would be only a detour of the legacy of recordings you mention, if I would somehow claim this legacy, which I clearly do not, as you can read…

    My booklet text functions exactly to claim a complete different one. It’s true that all the recordings you mention are in the same tradition, they differ maybe a little bit in the use of ficta and text placement etc, but grosso modo they share a common aesthetics, which I connect with the professional concert scene and a voice aesthetics legitimated by classical western music. If you would only just experiment with what this classical singing excludes, your whole sound spectrum changes and will immediately recall vocal aesthetics which we connect with mediterranean or traditional music. In a way, it’s funny. You could do the test: let singers in a polyphonic piece sing an ornament, for example a simple appoggiatura, a slow tremolo or even a simple glissando and everything changes. This has nothing to do with so called folk music, oriental singing or what so ever, it’s just a potential of dynamic possibilities which are lost in Western classical singing. (What the reasons are for their disappearance would be to complex to explain here…)

    And one of the reasons why singers of early music are mostly classically trained singers and not singers from an existing chant tradition is because it’s common sense that there is a line going from Machaut to modernism, which apparently legitimates a common voice aesthetics. Nobody feels forced to explain why a recording with medieval music is sung with classical western singers, this seems to be self evident, but if performed by singers belonging to, let’s just say, a ‘minor’ vocal chant tradition, legitimation is needed. You see, here the politics of early music come into play and need maybe some analytical deconstruction.

    Listen for example to recordings of the beginning of the 20th century: you get almost dizzy from the glissandi, portamenti and appoggiatures the singer use…

    In May we were in Hannover doing renaissance polyphony, but also Bach. The director of the festival, Ingo Metzmacher, who is also a famous Mahler conductor, asked me how I managed to make my singers sing glissandi so well, because he never achieved to get his violin players playing glissandi in Mahler symphonies: they just didn’t want to do it, because probably they didn’t like it or where taught not to do it…I work with my singers so intensely till they start to bend their notes, till they start to sing dynamics in a single note itself. For most of them it’s a re-discovery of dynamic possibilities, they can apply these techniques for Lied repertoire or baroque singing, because they discover that this early polyphony was a soloist repertoire performed together with others, and completely different from the norms of a choir tradition: you can just do so much more with the voice, and it’s the music of Machaut that invites you, obliges you to explore all this… And some singers of my ensemble are very good in those explorations and help the others and so we try to liberate these early repertoires from its rigid appropriation by western modernist musical legacy…

    And in this sense it’s true as a group there is still such a long way to go, it’s continuously developing, it’s infinite…we did the Machaut mass some months ago in the festival of Herne in Germany, and it sounded so different from what we recorded…that’s nice!

    Finally it’s maybe still important to eliminate what is probably part of the confusion: the singers of graindelavoix are not from Corsica. I don’t know where this idea comes from. Most of them have even a ‘normal’ classical vocal training, but developed next to that also other performative skills, in other music genres and in other disciplines. On the Machaut recording I work with singers from Belgium (3+ myself), France (2), Estonia (1), Romania (1), Spain (1) and US (1).

    And suddenly Machaut can become convincingly part of what we could call now ‘minor’ traditions: maybe some singers, I don’t know where, would hear our recording and would say: but, this is exactly in the line what we are doing for centuries: here something amazing and for me something political would have happened.

    Thanks again for helping me to explain things better!
    Björn Schmelzer

    1. I am grateful that you have expanded on your booklet essay here; I am sure anyone interested in Machaut’s mass and your recording very much appreciates the important additional information.

      Your comments here, especially, when they clear up misinformation such as the issue of the use of Corsican singers or Corsican singing style are very important. I can only surmise that this specific misconception occurred due to a conflation of your recording and the one by Marcel Pérès and Ensemble Organum.

      Once again, thanks for visiting my site and offering your very interesting and enlightening comments. It has allowed me, and others, the opportunity to gain a much better understanding of the principles that informed your performance of Machaut and early music repertoire in general.

      David Leone

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