Guillaume de Machaut “Messe de Nostre Dame”

“Messe de Nostre Dame” is possibly the best known work by the master of late Medieval polyphony, Guillaume de Machaut. Written in the mid 14th century while canon in residence at Rheims cathedral, “Messe de Nostre Dame” (“The Mass of our Lady”) is not thought to be an intact cyclical mass, but an assemblage of liturgical fragments, grouped together for the various annual festivals dedicated to the cult of the Virgin, to whom Rheims cathedral is dedicated. This might account for the range in style and tone throughout the eighteen movements which make up the mass as we know it today.

Primarily written as a choral piece, but sometimes accompanied by bells and organ to underpin the dramatically labarinthine root note changes, to modern ears “Messe de Nostre Dame” can feel like a fathomless gulf of voices eternally folding in on themselves. Single words are elongated to last for minutes in passages which allows the alto, tenor and bass parts to interchange the lead melody. Each part retains a highly individual character in terms of pitch, rhythm and melody while quickly inheriting and disinheriting the lead line and being masterfully blended to form one vast, organic ‘Eleison’.

This non-hierarchical employment of voices of all ranges allows the bass to shift from its traditional role as a supporting timbre and assume precedence as a melodic fulcrum with harmonizing lines leaping and receding around it in tiered, minor key quavers. The bass also acts as a key authorial voice as the mass progresses and the deacon invokes the words of the Apostles in a heavy monotone; ‘Like a vine I have born fragrant fruit….I am the mother of excelling love and of reverence and of dignity and of holy hope…He who reads my lessons rightly will posses eternal life’.

Here, stripped to the role of soloist, the bass assumes the profound gravity of religious authority with the choir providing italicized asides; ‘Hear o daughter. Consider and incline your ear, for the king has desired your beauty. With your grace and beauty be resolved. Set forth and with good fortune reign. Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Some of the most ethereally beautiful passages in “Messe de Nostre Dame” involve the bass parts being doubled up by bells. This provides a clarity to the scale and intervals of the melody where it can otherwise feel overwhelmingly vast and unpredictable.