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Book Review

Machaut's Music: New Interpretations

Machaut's Music: New Interpretations
Elizabeth Eva Leach, editor
New York: Boydell & Brewer Ltd. 2003. xviii + 296 pp.
ISBN-10: 1843830167
ISBN-13: 978-1843830160
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The series, "Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music", edited by Tess Knighton and Andrew Wathey, is intended to be set of a fairly free-form vehicles for current debates on music to 1600. One of its emphases is on writing (both original research and new re-assessment) that places music in its social contexts. Under the imprint of the ever-innovative Boydell and Brewer publishing house, the initiative is based in the United Kingdom, where many valuable and exciting advances in "early" music continue to be made. Now in Machaut's Music: New Interpretations Elizabeth Eva Leach has edited a superb anthology for the series, thanks in part to her receiving the Sarah Jane Wilkinson award of the International Machaut Society in 2002, which supported the enterprise. It was also Leach who co-organized the conference in 2001 in Oxford, Guillaume de Machaut: Image, Text and Music.

The dozen and-a-half or or so contributors to this volume, Machaut's Music: New Interpretations, however, are from much farther afield… from Freiburg, Amsterdam, New Orleans, Jerusalem, Cork, Hong Kong, Nebraska, Stanford and New York – as well as Oxford and London; there are also a couple of unaffiliated scholars. The list includes Virginia Newes, Jacques Boogaart, Thomas Brown, Karl Kügle, Alice Clark, Anne Stone, Peter Lefferts, Christian Berger, Jennifer Bain, William Peter Mahrt and Elizabeth Eva Leach herself. Their specialisms extend well beyond Machaut; this is invaluable in setting the context for what truly are generally new assessments of his life and work– particularly as these relate to other arts than music. The contributors all, too, have proven expertise both in researching and teaching/communicating the art of the fourteenth century in general and of Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) in particular.

There are chapters on "early" music theory, polyphony in the years after Machaut and Iberian polyphony. Form is discussed at length – in Virginia Newes' essay on symmetry in the Lay de Bonne Esperance, and in Jacques Boogart's examination of the motet, He! Mors. The processes of composition is dealt with in Thomas Brown's piece on the motets, and Jane Flynn's on De touts flours. Genres are covered in Kevin Moll's examination of texture and counterpoint in the Masses, and Margaret Bent's on Harmony in the Masses and Owen Rees on number theory. Anne Stone, Yolanda Plumley and Karl Kügle write on the relationship between words and music in Machaut's output. And there are essays, too, on individual works – all underpinned with extrapolations to the wider context of Machaut's and fourteenth century music.

Important for getting the most from the 18 essays, which range in length from about a dozen to two dozen pages, is to remember what one of the most prominent contributors, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (Editor of Machaut's "Voir Dit", ISBN-10: 0815313276; ISBN-13: 978-0815313274), has long asserted, that Machaut was "the last great poet who was also a composer". His poetry continues to be admired and known long after his death. There is an implicit assumption underlying almost all the work in Machaut's Music: New Interpretations that text is of paramount importance.

Machaut is also an important figure in early music for his contributions to the development of the motet and secular song (the lai, rondeau, virelai and ballade); this is a subject particularly well surveyed in Machaut's Music: New Interpretations by several of the contributors. And for writing the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass which is attributable to a single composer; Kevin Moll, Margaret Bent and Owen Rees make contributions in this area. Machaut is also exceptional in that he was able to copy, edit, preserve and effectively "publish" his own work; this aspect of his work, as well as the relationship between text and music, and detailed examinations of many of the composer's works, is well-covered.

Despite the composer's importance, and the quality and size of his output, there are remarkably few books such as this currently available and affordable. Two spring to mind: Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research by Lawrence Earp (Garland, 1995, ISBN-10: 0824023234; ISBN-13: 978-0824023232) and Guillaume de Machaut and Reims: Context and Meaning in his Musical Works by Anne Walters Robertson (Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN-10: 0521036089; ISBN-13: 978-0521036085). The former is a compendious reference work; the latter advances a specific thesis. So Machaut's Music: New Interpretations represents a good survey of Machaut and his place in the music and culture of his time, and is likely now to become the first stop of most people interested in the field. Particularly those who wish to extend their understanding of why Machaut is so highly thought or and influential – yet sadly too infrequently heard.

The risks when compiling an anthology of essays of this sort, particularly when your contributors are in disparate locations and with multiple research, writing and performing obligations worldwide (Owen Rees, for example, is director of the Capella Portuguesa and Cambridge Taverner Choir vocal groups), are ones of duplication on the one hand; and differences in stylistic approach on the other. Not here: Elizabeth Eva Leach has done a great job in ensuring consistency and comprehensiveness. In fact, writers in the volume specifically respond to one another's work – and even to their own earlier work. There is a sense of communal contributions and dialog.

These are achieved specifically by a deliberate editorial policy to expose the variety of contemporary scholarly approaches to Machaut's work as a range – rather than restrict what's examined to any predetermined forma. Indeed, as Elizabeth Eva Leach says in the Preface, "The often divergent conclusions reached by different scholars when writing about the same pieces is indicative of the extent to which the analysis of Machaut's music has become an area of constructive debate and disagreement within the discipline [xiii]". This makes for a rich and lively book with material which is thus both current and likely to be as well-filtered and "reviewed" as is possible. The "new" in the title is appropriate: much of the material presented does break new ground and/or forms new analysis on existing ideas and information.

One important premise on which contributions have been selected is that the sheer quantity of surviving, well-documented and preserved manuscripts is so unusual. Machaut dominates fourteenth century French music. So how representative of the music of his time is such a collection as this? And what are the implications of this for a series of studies like those in this book? Maybe that is the wrong question. For what these experts certainly have done is assemble an authoritative and elegantly-presented collection that is eminently representative of current scholarship on Machaut. It's much more than a collection of essays. It surveys those aspects of the life and work of the composer which extend from the known and established, through the speculative and provocative to the exploratory and novel. And, although it would be possible to dip into the chapters at random, the logic of working through the clearly-presented theses of each contributor in turn has a lot to recommend it, sufficiently well-organized is the book.

Here is a book, then, which will appeal to specialist scholars of Machaut for sure. There is going to be something new, challenging or illuminating for those already enthusiastic about Machaut. For lovers of medieval music in general, the book represents as good an introduction to Machaut in the wider context as is currently available. As an example of highly accomplished and reputable scholarship in this or any field "Guillaume de Machaut: Image, Text and Music" has everything to recommend it. Well-indexed, with an extensive bibliography and numerous musical examples at every point throughout the text, the tone varies from contributor to contributor but also reflects the careful planning which went into producing a key study, which will be of value for some years to come.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey.