Guillame de Machaut was one of the foremost composers of the 14th century. His music presents a very clear picture of the changes that were taking place in the music and musical style in the 1300’s. In this essay we will analyze one of Machaut’s most famous secular songs “Foy Porter” and observe the techniques that he used. This can help us learn more about the new styles of music that were evolving during his life time and how they were used. In Europe during the 1300’s, new ways of thinking were beginning to emerge.
People started to have new ideas about secular parts of life and sacred parts of life and what the relationship between the two should be. We can see that music followed a similar course. The Ars Nova is a term that describes a style of music being written in France during the period of these changes. It was characterized by more freedom in rhythm and melody. This period saw the invention of what would become the modern notation system which allowed composers to notate much more complicated melodies and rhythms. Songs that were based on chant melodies were given secular words and used for a secular purpose.
Secular musicians, like the scientists of the time, were becoming more and more focused on the senses and the pleasure that could be perceived through them. It was quite a change from the church music, which was unaccompanied simply because it would have made it to enjoyable and therefore not spiritual enough. Professional musicians who entertained the nobility were interested in pleasing their audience in both poetry, and in complex melody and rhythm. Guillaume de Machaut, was born around 1300 and died in 1377, so his life spans the Ars Nova.
In fact it is his death that scholars classify as the end of the period. He was a priest but also served in the courts of the King of Bohemia and the King of Navarre during his life. He is one of the best known composers of the Ars Nova style and this is partly due to the fact that his compositions were well documented by himself, during his life. Machaut wrote both church and secular music but it is the latter that he is best known for. In his secular music he expanded on the form fixes, which were the standard forms of the day.
Machaut composed many rondeau, the ballade and the virelai, and used them to their full advantage to experiment with and perfect the techniques of the Ars Nova style. Even when Machaut used the traditional formats, he made small changes to rhythm or melodic patterns or rhyme scheme that made it more complex and enabled the performer to show off their technique and expression. The history of the virelai is in many ways quite simple. It most likely developed from dance songs of the troubadours. The word ‘virelai’ probably comes from the Old French virer meaning ‘to turn’ or ‘to twist’, reinforcing the use of the virelai to accompany dance. The virelai was usually monophonic but polyphonic virelai became more popular in the later 1300’s.
Machaut himself wrote 33 virelai in total and of those, 25 are monophonic. 2 Foy Porter is one of the 25 monophonic virelai and is therefore only a single line of melody with accompanying text. It is possible however that it was accompanied by instruments, but their parts would have been improvised. All of the form fixes, as the name implies, have a standard, or fixed, form in which they are written and “Foy Porter” is a very good example of the standard virelai form.
The song begins with the refrain, moves through stanza one and the first ending, followed by stanza two and the second ending. Then it returns to the refrain melody with a new text and then repeats the original refrain again. The form is A bb1a A bb1a A bb1a A. ‘A’ is the original refain, ‘b’ is the original stanza, b1 is the stanza melody with new text, and ‘a’ is the refain melody with new text. The ambitus of this virelai is from d to high f. The d occurs only once at the end of the second stanza and the high f is also only seen once and is the pitch that both of the stanzas begin on.
There are b naturals and b flats used throughout. The final pitch is an f and many of the phrases as well as the stanzas, end on c so it is most likely in mode lydian, with f as the final, and c as the reciting tone. The melody is in general, syllabic, with a few short nuematic parts. There is also one short melisma in bars 13 and 14. The melody often moves downward and then jumps up a 5th or 6th, usually after a rest. This pattern is used throught Machaut’s virelais as well as his ballades and rondeau. 3 The virelai was also known as a chanson ballade or “a song for danceing”.
The rhythm of Foy Porter is very memorable with it repeated patterns of short-short-short-short-long. This pattern is seen in the first two measures and is repeated on different pitches through out the piece. For example in measures 11-12. Each short line of poetry has a its own piece of the melody and seperating them from each other is a rest. This does a very good job of highlighting the lists in the poetry. Overall the rhythm is very lively and playful. Here is the opening line of the virelai: In the second bar is an example of this leaping part of the melodic line.
Also the rhythmic pattern is repeated three different times. As with the troubadours and trouveres courtly love was the main theme of Machaut’s poetry, and this virelai is no different. The poetry addresses a lady and specifically talks about how the composer would show his faithfulness. In the refrain is a list of these things; to be faithful, to guard her honour, to seek peace, to obey, to fear, to serve, and to honour. Every time the refain melody is sung the text is a list. The lines of poetry in the original French, have two rhyming endings: the -er and the -ir, which form their own pattern.
The rhymeing pattern in the refrain is always aabbbaba, and the pattern for the stanzas is always bbabbaaabbbaba, where “a” is the -er ending and “b” is the -ir ending. The Ars Nova changed a lot in music and essentially gave us out modern notation sytem. Machaut played a huge part in this period of music and his virelai Foy Porter shows how he used the styles of the ars nova. Foy Porter is one of Machaut’s many pieces that can give us an idea of how composers were using new techniques and ideas to please their audiences. What Machaut ‘s music achieved so beautifully was a natural combination of poetry with music.