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.
The 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:
“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)