Having had a clerical education and taken Holy orders, Guillaume de Machaut's career as a poet and composer took flight when he joined the court of John, Duke of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia around 1323, serving as the king's secretary until that monarch's death in battle at Crécy in 1346. Sometime before this, Machaut had settled in Rheims where he remained until his death, serving as canon in the cathedral there. His services as a composer were sought out by important patrons, including the future Charles V of France. His poetry was known throughout Europe and his admirers included Geoffrey Chaucer. Machaut is probably best remembered for being the first composer to create a polyphonic setting of the Ordinary of the Catholic Mass (the Ordinary being those parts of the liturgy that do not change, including the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei). The new style of the fourteenth century, dubbed the Ars Nova by composers of the period, can be heard in the "Gloria" from Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame. This new polyphonic style caught on with composers and paved the way for the flowering of choral music in the Renaissance.
Although today the Mass is probably his best-known work, Machaut also composed dozens of secular love songs, also in the style of the polyphonic "new art." These songs epitomize the courtly love found in the previous century's vocal art, and capture all the joy, hope, pain and heartbreak of courtly romance. The secular motets of the Middle Ages eventually evolved into the great outpouring of lovesick lyricism embodied in the music of the great Renaissance Madrigalists.
Guillaume de Machaut (circa 1300-1377)
Guillaume de Machaut is the first composer in Western music history who seemed to be conscious of his artistic achievements and of his place in history. To assure that place, Machaut saw to it that his work was painstakingly copied and artfully illustrated, the first known example of a composer thus preserving his own work for posterity.
Acknowledgements & Credits
The information provided here appears in Music History 102: A Guide to Western Composers and Their Music, which was designed, compiled and created by Robert Sherrane. The entire source is provided courtesy of ipl2, a web-based public service organization and learning/teaching environment.