by David Maw
In his lengthy debate poem Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, the poet–composer Guillaume de Machaut related his experience of the Black Death. Celestial portents, earthquakes, and bad weather heralded its coming. It provoked processions of flagellants, conspiracies about poisoned water and air, and the scapegoating of Jews. Its victims suffered bodily discolouration and swelling. Many succumbed to death in just three days. Corpses quickly piled up in churches and rapidly dug trenches. Machaut was, by his own admission, not brave in the face of this threat. He made his confession and, on 9 November 1349, shut himself in his house. There he remained for an entire season. A noisy sound of instruments and merrymaking brought his incarceration to a close. Going to the window, he asked what was going on. A friend told him that the epidemic had passed. He celebrated his freedom by riding out on his horse, Grisart, to hunt hares in the country.
It is hard to believe that this experience had no impact on his musical creativity, but tracing such impact is inevitably tricky. Evidence permits no more than speculation about the dates of Machaut’s compositions. In some cases, though, circumstances may be suggestive of a more precise time period or date.
The first of the manuscripts devoted to Machaut’s poetry and music, whose compilation he himself oversaw, is thought to have been intended for Bonne of Luxembourg, daughter of his former patron, Jean, Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia. Sadly, she never saw it as she died during the Black Death. It is possible that Bonne’s widower, Jean, Duke of Normandy, who became King of France the year after her death, assumed the role of sponsor for the project as a memorial to her. Given the delay to the work, and the continued growth of his work in the interim, Machaut took the opportunity to bring the collection up to date and added some recently composed songs in an unordered group near the end.
Amongst these added songs were two four-voice rondeaux, ‘Tant doucement’ and ‘Rose, lis’. Four-voice polyphony was the most ambitious musical medium at Machaut’s disposal. He wrote only a few four-voice songs, and these two represent part of his early exploration of the medium’s possibilities. They contrast starkly with one another in both their musical style and poetic content. In ‘Tant doucement’, the lover imagines his amorous state a sweet imprisonment. It begins:
Tant doucement me sens emprisonnes
qu’onques amans n’ot si douce prison.
Jamais ne quier estre desprisonnes
So gently do I feel myself imprisoned
That no lover ever had so sweet a prison.
I never seek to be set free
Whereas ‘Rose, lis’ opens with a burst of springtime imagery:
Rose, lis, printemps, verdure,
Fleur, baume et tres douce odour,
Belle, passes en doucour.
Rose, lily, springtime, greenery,
Flower, balm and very sweet scent,
Beautiful one, you surpass them in sweetness.
The music of ‘Tant doucement’ is involuted and flecked with sweet dissonance, whilst that of ‘Rose, lis’ captures the joyful efflorescence of spring as it fans out from a fifth on C through a gradual descent of the bass down an octave.
Were these songs Machaut’s response to his experience of the Black Death? Did ‘Tant doucement’ transmute his confinement into a vision of amorous entrapment, and ‘Rose, lis’ express the vivid impact of the natural world on him after months of immurement? We cannot know for sure, but the appearance of these two strikingly contrasted essays in the same genre at roughly the same time in his output invites the speculation. The claustrophobic intensity of ‘Tant doucement’ and vernal ebullience of ‘Rose, lis’ are nicely conveyed by the Orlando Consort’s beautiful recordings: