by Anne Azéma

Program and Production Notes for the upcoming March 29 and March 30 performances (Amherst and Cambridge, Ma.)

The present production of the epoch-making “Messe de Notre Dame” by Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300–77) was the result of a 2011 commission to The Boston Camerata by the Reims Music Festival. The mission confided to us then was to reconsider and reconceive Machaut’s masterpiece, the earliest known polyphonic setting of the mass Ordinary from the hand of a single composer, in honor of the 800th anniversary of the glorious Reims Cathedral. That is the place where Canon Machaut’s music was almost certainly first performed. These 2013 performances in Amherst and Cambridge mark the North American première of that Reims production, a significant milestone both in the history of the Cathedral and of our ensemble.

As it is with history’s appreciation of the Reims cathedral itself—a building successively neglected, adored, altered, partially destroyed, rebuilt and restored—our views of medieval musical art in general and of Machaut’s achievement in particular have changed and evolved greatly over the generations. During the Enlightenment and into the earlier nineteenth century, medieval music (or what little was known of it) was generally considered to be crude and primitive. Ever since the earliest transcriptions of medieval polyphony by later nineteenth-century musical paleographers began to circulate, a reappraisal began, and in Machaut’s case appreciation for his musical art has never ceased to grow and progress. His place as one of the greatest composers in music history is now virtually unchallenged, and even his prolific literary output, for so long relegated to the second rank, is now undergoing positive reevaluation.

Machaut’s mass ordinary, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was probably composed c.1360; perhaps this is the mass he mentions in his epitaph, visible in the nave of the cathedral until the eighteenth century. Machaut there requested, and generously endowed, a memorial mass to be sung in memory of himself and his brother Jean. In any case, his four-voice Lady Mass contains six movements: a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est. The grandiose proportions of the Reims Cathedral led us to reimagine Machaut’s polyphony within an entire liturgical cycle, as it very likely would have been heard at the time.

The liturgy of the Catholic mass, an ensemble of rites and celebrations, is a succession of texts, symbols, and acts, whose specific order may vary according to the geographic location of the ceremony. Much of this ceremony happens in music, sung or declaimed. The specific rite that surrounded Machaut’s polyphony was almost certainly the Marial mass “Salve sancta Parens.” In the performance you will here, the Gregorian chants of this mass will be sung by the Convivium Musicum. We cannot, of course, imitate or mime the actual, theological sacrament of the mass, nor do we wish to do so. Rather, we hope to give a richer and deeper context to what is an iconic symbol of medieval sacred art.

One way to deepen the context is to extend/recreate its timeframe. One can perform any composer’s setting of the Ordinary from Machaut forward in a “concert” manner with the movements succeeding each other as in a symphony. Machaut’s music, however, was never intended as a work to be heard in isolation; rather, it was meant to be part of a larger context: the “novel” polyphony contrasting with the familiar Gregorian monodies. As these different musical works are heard in response to each other, the innovative force of Machaut’s art, so admired by his contemporaries, is felt even more strongly. And, heard together, chants and polyphony create a new whole, a unique spiritual, emotional, and artistic itinerary for the listener.

The landscape of memory is continually changing, from one generation to the next as our notions of the past evolve. We approach the past, attempting to appropriate and share it with men and women of our own time. The effort seems insurmountable, impossible, and yet at the same time a close and familiar part of our daily work as musicians. The most ordinary and quotidian kind of performance decisions—where, for instance, to pitch the human voices, high or low?—have an enormous impact on our perceptions of the past and of Machaut’s genius in particular. Our choice of lower voices—tenors, baritone, and bass—may seem at first to contradict the modern “score” of the Machaut Mass. But only at first! For the notes on the score have nothing to do with the fixed pitches of a modern keyboard, but rather with the arrangements of steps and half steps within the two modes of the mass. The actual height of the sounding pitches needs to be determined by other means. Again, the choice of a small solo group, rather than a modern choral society, will create its own space and mental/aural impression. Even the seemingly self-evident choice to sing with musicians facing the listeners (rather than an altar) will influence our sense of a now-receding, now-approaching distant past.

Whatever our performance decisions (and ours, hopefully, will bring us closer to some level of historical veracity), Guillaume de Machaut’s musical art, in this liturgical masterpiece as in his other extraordinary compositions, maintains its exquisite beauty and its power to touch and transport us, still filled with the force of life and spirit six centuries after its creation in medieval France.

Anne Azéma, January 2013
(translation: Joel Cohen)