Chapter 4

Chapter 4: French and Italian Music in the Fourteenth Century

Composer Biographies

Guillaume de Machaut

Born: c. 1300, Reims, France

Died: April 13, 1377, Reims, France

French poet and musician. Composer of monophonic and polyphonic music. Leading representative of the Ars Nova tradition.

The fourteenth century was, as the historian Barbara Tuchman notes, a calamitous century. Europe was ravaged by plague, which killed up to one-third of the population in a three-year period. France and England embarked on the disastrous Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) which inflicted great misery on the French people. On top of this, political conflicts resulted first in the relocation of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in southern France (1309) and ultimately in the election of competing popes (at one point, numbering three) resulting in the Great Schism (1378–1417). Ironically, this was also a time of great achievement in music. A new class of highly trained composers continued the polyphonic traditions of the previous century and added new approaches to rhythm and structure. Among these composers of the so-called Ars Nova (literally "new art") was Guillaume de Machaut.

Machaut lived his life in the higher ranks of service, first as secretary to John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, and then as a canon (a church official) at the Cathedral of Reims. Typically for the fourteenth century, Machaut's life and works reflect an equal measure of the sacred and secular. Most of his works were either secular (such as his many chansons) or a mix of sacred and ceremonial (including many of his motets and his hocket "David," which was probably written for the coronation service of King Charles V in 1364). At the same time, he wrote what is probably the first full setting of the Mass Ordinary by a single composer (the Messe de Nostre Dame ). He was a man of the cloth, having taken minor orders at an early age. Yet toward the end of his life he maintained a romantic/literary affair with a young woman named Perrone.

Much of Machaut's polyphonic music reflects the interest that composers had in building complex structures based on the repetition and manipulation of borrowed melodies (a technique called isorhythm ). In some of his works, these techniques are applied to all the voices. The harmonies found in Machaut's pieces are built around the fifth and the octave, the primary consonances of the period. His secular music carries on the musical and textual traditions of the troubadours and trouvères. Most are written in fixed forms, such as the virelei, rondeau, and ballade.


  • Sacred/ceremonial music, including Messe de Nostre Dame , 23 motets, and the hocket "David"
  • Secular music, including 42 ballades, 22 rondeaux, 33 virelais, 19 lais, 1 complainte, and 1 chanson royale

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Musical Examples

Click on the songs to listen:
  • Puis qu'en oubli 01:52
  • La Messe de Nostre Dame - Gloria 04:44
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