Meter and Word Setting: Revising Machaut's Monophonic Virelais

Maw, David

Monophonic virelais constitute a significant proportion of Guillaume de Machaut's compositions in the formes fixes; together with the complainte and chanson roial of the Remede de Fortune and the lais, they represent the zenith of a medium which has not since been pursued with either such creative variety or such compositional resource. At first glance, the virelais seem simple, naIve even. Yet closer analytical attention has revealed that they harbor a range of sophistications, whether a subtle interplay of melodic phrase and poetic line, or a variety of different tonal procedures and motivic reworkings. This is no surprise given the remarkable technical skill and creative imagination of Machaut's other compositions. But it is a timely reminder that the monophonic songs are an integral part of his lyric output, rather than a marginal curiosity betraying indebtedness to the trouvere tradition at a time when the lyric genres were focused on the development of polyphony. The differentiation of strong and weak beats which we now understand by the term meter is a musical phenomenon that may be appreciated in listening and reproduced in performance directly in sound without the necessity of theoretical exegesis or conceptual mediation. It would have been as important a part of medieval dance music as it is of modern dance music, even though no medieval theorist troubled to explain the phenomenon; and for that matter, it is hard to see how the rhythm of Machaut's songs assumed the form it did without the regulation of a metrical practice.



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Columbia University
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March 30, 2015