The Polyphonic Lais of Guillaume de Machaut : Overview + Recordings


Fourteenth-century France exhibits the effects of an era grappling for an identity through its language, poetry and music. Amidst intellectual rigidity and diurnal despair, this transitional period enfeebled by medieval traditions yet aspired to humanist artistry. Guillaume de Machaut, illustrious poet-composer in the medieval myth, offered a means of embellishing life through a variety of secular songs. In particular, the lay, a twelve-stanza traditional form and predecessor to the “virelai,” “ballade,” and “rondeau,” permitted this versatile artist to musically integrate divergent but equally imposing strains in fourteenth century French culture.[1]

Machaut’s 19 lais mark the final phase of a longstanding tradition. As in the motets there are further indications of his engagement with the Roman de Fauvel, yet although the composition of these works stretches into Machaut’s late years. That the lais in manuscript C are transmitted with miniatures emphasizes their importance in Machaut’s oeuvre. In their integration of the new rhythmic procedures of the Ars Nova into a defined musical structure (generally in 12 sections, of which the last refers to the first, often by way of transposition), Machaut’s lais elevate a now old genre, offering unique solutions for large-scale text-setting in monophony. The expansion of the form into polyphony is a further part of this process: polyphony is indicated in two cases by rubrics (L16 and L17; 11 and 12 in Schrade) and in two more (L23 and L24; or 17 and 18 in Schrade) is implicit in the traditional method of successively notating sections of melody that are to be performed simultaneously.[2]

Machaut’s lais were the most backward-looking of his works, for the form, popular in the preceding century, failed to capture the interest of his successors, who carried forward his work on rondeau, ballade, and virelai. Their appearance in the Ludwig edition was delayed from 1930 to 1954, which made them less accessible to performers than the other works. Their great length (usually lasting over 20 minutes in performance, often longer) militated against appearance on records. It should not be surprising that three of the four polyphonic lais, Machaut’s real innovation with the form, have had the most attention. 

r-1649049-1234484197-jpegThe Le lay de la fonteinne has appeared previously, on Electrola’s Andrea von Ramm is quite good with lute accompaniment in the odd-numbered stanzas, the canonic trio is frightfully insecure in intonation.  The 1750 Arch version (reissued on Musical Heritage Society) is well done by an American ensemble, but the approach is designed to make the piece appeal to the general audience, with constant variations in vocal assignment and choice of instrument and insertion of a spoken English translation at each stanza.

In the L’Oiseaux-Lyre recording, led by Roger Davies and Timothy Davies, the even-numbered stanzas are three-part chaces and is by far better than the two previous recordings.  The newest version uses a tenor, Rogers Covey-Crump, unaccompanied, with three tenors in the chaces, the other two vocalizing without singing the text, since their texts starting later than the leading part, would be incomplete and therefore senseless.

r-2656432-1301856073-jpegThe novelty is the first recording of an important piece, Un lay de consolation, which was the subject of a study by Richard Hoppin in Musica Disciplina (1958)[3]. As Hoppin said:

The clue to the polyphonic character of the “Lay de Consolation“ lies in the provision of a new melody for the second half of each strophe. In all the other lais of Machaut, the metrically identical halves of each strophe are repeated to the same melody. The curious anomaly in Lai 17 led to a comparison of the two melodies of each pair and the discovery that they create two-voice polyphony in a manner that cannot possibly have been accidental.

Rather than have two voices singing different words to the harmonizing melodies, Davies has chosen to use an instrument to provide the second part (he admits that a second voice could have vocalized the part).

This is an important release, then, all the happier for the excellent performances and engineering. The color illumination on the sleeve, Davies’ notes, and the texts and translations come up to the expected standard of presentation that this still obscure music needs, although my copy lacked the insert.[4]

r-5975667-1407843218-7544-jpegOn the Hilliard ensemble’s recording of La Messe de Nostre Dame, Paul Hillier has included two of Machaut’s French compositions, the first, a major work, the “Lai de la fonteinne” (repeating the Davies’s recording), sung by three tenors, and finally, his famous rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement with its retrograde canon. You can’t go wrong with either this one by Hillier or the L’Oiseaux-Lyre recording.  Some cite Rogers Covey-Crump as having a more delicate singing style which delivers the music in a more appealing manner, while Mary Berry writing in Gramophone admits preferring the Hilliard recording: The Lai is pure delight—food here for the heart as well as the intellect. It is the treasure of this CD, and my main reason for wishing to buy it.[5]

mi0000957346Le lai de confort the third of the four polyphonic lais has been recorded only once, by the Little Consort with Frans Brüggen on recorder for Channel Classics.  The Lai de Confort, S’onques douloureusement, is rendered here in a strikingly original fashion, each stanza being performed first with text (the singer on one voice line, instruments on the other two), then with instruments alone. Thus a work that is normally twenty minutes long is extended to 39:04, with three anonymous instrumental works preceding the piece on the disc.[6]

Recently there have been two recordings which attempt to bridge the 700 year gap between our time and Machaut’s by creating transcriptions and new works based on his music.

The first recording combines two cycles by the French composer Philippe Leroux, performed by Ensemble Solistes XXI, for digitally treated vocal consort, one with instruments and one without. The five pieces that make up Quid sit musicus? are based on both the text and music of several works by Machaut and his younger contemporary Jacob de Senlèches, all of which appear embedded within Leroux’s compositions.[7]

Following Leroux is Heinz Holliger, whose multi-movement Machaut-Transkriptionen alternates works by Machaut with ‘transcriptions’ based on them with a greater or lesser degree of audible freedom.

The cycle begins with three such pairs, Machaut being represented by members of The Hilliard Ensemble and Holliger by three solo violas. The Swiss composer’s contributions become progressively lengthier and the second half of the cycle consists of more substantial pieces, first for all four Hilliards, then for the violas, and finally for both groups together. The cumulative quality of this scheme is formally effective, as is Machaut’s progressive dissolution (in a positive sense) into an idiom that incorporates both him and Holliger.[8]

[1] Turcic, Patricia A., “Words and music in communion: an analysis of Guillaume de Machaut’s “Le Lay de la Fonteinne” in cultural context” (2001). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 486.
[2] Arlt, Wulf, “Machaut, Guillaume de.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <;.
[3] Hoppin, Richard H., “An Unrecognized Polyphonic Lai of Machaut.” Musica Disciplina, vol. 12, 1958, pp. 93–104.
[4] Weber, J.F., “Review: Machaut Le lay de la fonteinne. Un lay de consolation. The Medieval Consort of London, directed by Peter Davies, Timothy Davies. L’Oiseau-Lyre DSDL 705 PSI.“ Fanfare Magazine, Issue 07:5 (May/June 1984). Fanfare Archive. Web 17 Jan. 2017.
[5] Berry, Mary, “Review: Machaut Choral Works.” Gramophone Magazine (02/1990). Web 17 Jan 2017.
[6] Weber, J.F., “Review: Machaut Le lai de confort. Little Consort; Frans Brüggen, recorder. Channel Classics CCS 0390 [DDD]; 46:25. Produced by Kees Boeke.” Fanfare Magazine, Issue 14:4 (Mar/Apr 1991). Web 17 Jan 2017.
[7] Fitch, Fabrice,“Review: Leroux Quid sit musicus? Cinq Poèmes de Jean Grosjean.”  Gramophone Magazine (01/2016). Web 17 Jan 2017.
[8] Fitch, Fabrice,“Review: Holliger Machaut-Transkriptionen.”  Gramophone Magazine  (01/2016). Web 17 Jan 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s