Review of the Exeter Machaut Conference

This review is also posted on the Medieval Song Network site here.

Review of the conference ‘Guillaume de Machaut: Music, Image, Text in the Middle Ages’, University of Exeter, UK, 29-30 April 2013

From the Exeter project site:

From the Exeter project site:

This conference took place to mark the approach of the end of the Leverhulme-funded phase of the Machaut edition project, which will for the first time provide a comprehensive edition of Machaut’s complete works and music (see A full list of papers can be seen here, and the conference was live-tweeted by Elizabeth Eva Leach (@eeleach), with Kate Maxwell (@skatemaxwell) taking over when necessary. These tweets can be found with the hashtag #Machex13.

All domains from Machaut studies were represented, with a fair number of papers crossing interdisciplinary boundaries. In addition, a concert by Le Basile provided a rare and much-appreciated opportunity to hear Machaut’s works performed live. On the historical side of things, project co-leader Yolanda Plumley together with Uri Smilansky revealed more details about the colourful courtier whose arms adorn BnF fr. 22545-6 (ms F-G). Perhaps more importantly, their paper revealed his extensive travels and associations with other manuscripts, thereby helping to expand the picture of manuscript patronage and exchange at the time. In a similar vein, Anna Alberni offered an insight into the role of some isolated works by Machaut in Biblioteca de Catalunya 7-8 (the chansonnier Vega-Aguiló) and the presence of Machaut’s works in Aragon more generally (a paper which chimes in well with that given by Lawrence Earp at the ‘Machaut in the Book’ symposium in Virginia, reviewed here). Machaut’s presence – bodily or otherwise – in Saint-Quentin in Picardy was the focus of David Fiala’s paper, which also shed some light on another clerkly musician at the Luxemburg court. Another paper which examined both musical and religious issues was that by Thomas Neal, who argued that the triplum and motetus voices of Motet 21 can be read as tropes, since they draw so heavily on the vocabulary and structure of office hymns. Emphasising art-historical issues, Julia Drobinsky’s analysis of the placement of miniatures in BnF fr. 22545-6 revealed that the artist of this manuscript – or the person issuing artistic instructions – paid close attention to the placement of the miniatures which emphasise the steps of a story more closely than any of the other illuminated Machaut manuscripts.

Of course, Machaut’s literary output also came under scrutiny, and in the first session of the first day, project co-leader R. Barton Palmer and Helen Swift both examined authorship and identity in Machaut’s works. While Swift argued for a mutable ‘je’ in relation to the Jugement dou roi de Behaigne and its accompanying images, Palmer included the two jugement poems, the Lai de plour ‘Qui bien aimme’, and the Voir dit in his paper where he traced the idea of authenticity both from the ‘inside’ – within the works – and the ‘outside’ – in the eyes (or ears) of the readers. Tamsyn Rose-Steel’s analysis of word repetition – particularly that of the ‘sans penser’ motif – in the lyrics now commonly known as the Louange des dames traced this single motif through the entire collection, from the very first line of the first poem, thus illustrating its importance.

On the second day, there were a number of papers which were intensely musicological in nature. The first of these was by Jared Hartt, who proposed a rethinking of the accepted notion of the workings of harmonies in Machaut’s mass so that, in line with research into his other works, the roles of the tenor and contratenor are not as clear-cut as has been previously thought. Following him, Anne Stone gave a paper in which she undertook a rhythmic analysis of two ballades which focused on the order of rhythms at the breve level. Her results showed the importance of the rhetorical technique of orditorio even at this micro level. David Maw’s paper argued that Machaut’s music displays ‘a pure intransitive subjectivity’, which he illustrated though Rondeau 5. The other session which was musicological in nature offered more in the way of text-music relations. Virginia Newes’s paper on the monophonic virelais in BnF fr. 1586 (ms C) asked important questions regarding line lengths and scribal awareness of rhyme issues, and Warwick Edwards’s work on accent structures and their complicated relation to musical phrasing played its part in revealing the shift from an oral to written culture – from song to book – which was well underway by the fourteenth century.

Turning now to those papers which were more overtly interdisciplinary in nature, the jugement poems once again came into focus in Emma Cayley’s paper, which dwelt on the possible causes of damage – deliberate or not – to the miniatures in BnF fr. 1584 (ms A), relating them to the verb ‘effacier’ which appears in the Jugement dou roi de Navarre when the judge is asked to overturn the outcome of Behaigne. Another paper which combined textual and visual analysis was that of Emma Dillon, whose exploration of the circularity and function of the rondelet in the Remede de Fortune linked both to the miniature in BnF fr. 1586 (ms C) and to the layout of the page as a whole. Taking interdisciplinarity and layout issues one step further, Kate Maxwell presented some of the ‘modes’ at play on a single manuscript folio, arguing that the framework of ‘multimodality’ can be a rewarding method of manuscript analysis. Two papers combined musical and textual issues: Dmitris Kountouras’s analysis of the complainte in the Remede de Fortune – ‘Machaut’s only lament’ – offered new insights into this long and musically repetitive piece; and Jacques Boogaart’s interpretation of Motet 7 brought both David’s lament for Absalom and the story of the orgueilleuse alongside a musical analysis which suggested a ‘tantalising feeling of unobtainable perfection’.

Such a phrase is perhaps also applicable to the edition project itself, which was the subject of a round table given by members of the project team. With so much on offer – searchable online texts, recordings, and a new edition of the music, to name but a few of the delights displayed – the appetite of delegates was certainly whet for the eagerly anticipated release of the first portions later this year. Perfection is, indeed, difficult to obtain, and with audience queries focusing on compatibility and longevity of the online sections of the project, only time will tell whether all these expectations can be met. Nevertheless, as reading Machaut only reminds us, we should banish Desire and put our trust in Hope (admittedly assisted in her duties here by the skills of the project team). What is certain is that, with two major projects flowering this year and bearing fruit in the near future, Machaut studies will never be the same again.

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