Guillaume de Machaut: Music and Ars Nova Style

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  • 0:53 Early Life and Career
  • 1:37 Musical Experimentation
  • 2:14 Ars Nova
  • 3:33 Stylistic Growth
  • 5:04 Messe de Notre Dame
  • 7:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Guillaume de Machaut was a French composer of the Medieval Era who significantly changed the course of music. Learn how his contributions to both sacred and secular music made him the most highly-regarded composer of his time.

Guillaume de Machaut

Guillaume de Machaut was the guy that could do most anything. Both the Church and the secular world liked him. Even the ladies loved him. He wrote music to inspire change and wrote poetry that influenced greats like Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales.

He was even special enough to have his music and poetry written down and illuminated in manuscripts. Machaut is considered the most important composer of the Medieval Era of music, which is considered to be roughly 500-1450 A.D. So what made this guy so special?

Early Life and Career

Machaut was born around the year 1300 in the French province of Champagne. He studied to become a cleric and served the Church throughout his lifetime. He also served in several kings' courts, such as the King of Bohemia, with whom he traveled on military trips as a trouvère, or court singer and poet. As a trouvère, he wrote poems and sang songs of courtly love, romantically pursuing several women throughout his court tenures. Machaut even went on to serve not one, but two kings of France and the King of Cyprus.

Musical Experimentation

What made his music so remarkable? Part of what made Machaut's music so revolutionary was his ability to bridge the old and new musical ideas through extensive experimentation in rhythm and polyphonic, or multi-part music. The early Medieval Era is known for its somewhat dull, non-rhythmic, one-part music, and although advancements were made along the way, none came quite as far as Machaut did in switching it to a more lively and intricate style.

Ars Nova

In fact, so much of his music was new and experimental that he was considered a founder of the Ars Nova style, meaning new art. Ars Nova encompassed integrating more complex rhythm and polyphony of secular music. This meant not worrying so much about building on previously existing chants and focusing more on more polyphonic writing. Specifically, the Ars Nova was a treatise written in 1320 by fellow composer Philippe de Vitry. These ideas were condemned by the Pope, who said the 'new school' composers were adding too much complexity and largely ignoring the chant from which the music was supposed to be made.

The advancements made in rhythm and rhythmic notation were also criticized because it made dividing the sacred text easier. At a time when secular subjects and individual thought were on the rise, music was also taking a turn away from the divine powers and towards human beauty. Machaut's music embodied this in using complex meter, advanced harmonies and secular topics.

Stylistic Growth

Machaut was a master of both sacred and secular styles. In the sacred style, Machaut was known for his motets, which are typically defined as unaccompanied choral compositions based on sacred Latin text, and for his famous mass, the Messe de Notre Dame, which is often cited as being the best-known composition of the entire Medieval Period. His motets stand out for their changing rhythms, longer lengths and integration of sacred and secular texts. On the secular side, Machaut is known for his songs and poems of courtly love.

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