The evening of May 24, 2014 will be a special musical memory for me.
After a year of work on transcription and rehearsal, my medieval women’s group Schola Magdalena performed Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame for 170 listeners at St. Mary Magdalene church in Toronto.
Our programme also featured plainchant, the Lady Anthems, a sample of Hildegard of Bingen, and our own version of the evening service of Compline, intended to be sung in monastic communities just before bedtime. The acoustic of St. Mary Mag’s, paired with a luminous atmosphere of candlelight, made this particularly rewarding to share with our sympathetic audience. It was a privilege to give harried city dwellers a brief oasis of calm.
Machaut’s mass has been a personal addiction of mine for about 35 years. My Dad had an old Archiv recording by Pro Musica Antiqua, Bruxelles from 1956. I played it over and over again, until the old black vinyl crackled like bacon on the stove. The sweet dissonance of this exotic music transported me to ancient places, to a mystic, distant world that spun magic for an ordinary farm kid. It became the inspiration for decades of study in early music.
The reaction we received from many audience members was a similar feeling of “transportation” to another time and space. I wonder how music does that?
Machaut’s mass appears in many music history textbooks and is required material for anyone serious about musical study. It is the oldest complete setting of the Mass by a single composer for four voices. In the fourteenth century Machaut was better known as a secular poet-musician specializing in painful songs of unrequited love in the courtly fashion of the time. But this mass, for most musicians, is his greatest legacy. He very wisely compiled all of his compositions late in life, preserving his great polyphonic repertoire for future generations in lavish manuscripts so that we can perform them 600 years later.
Machaut’s work incorporates all the intellectual devices in the Ars Nova composer’s tool box. He borrows chant melodies and stretches them out underneath complex counterpoint. He employs hocket, complex rhythmic games and spine-tingling double leading tone cadences.
Our great privilege in 2014 is to sing this ancient masterpiece as a group of women, having Machuat’s original work transposed for us by York University PHD student, Joe Amato. The result is not an easy sing, but we manage this in typical Schola Magdalena style by sharing the burden between all six singers. Since the range is from low E for the altos to high G for the sopranos, we exchange voice parts so that no one singer experiences too much vocal fatigue in these extreme ranges. We all struggled to learn this piece. It pushed us as an ensemble vocally, rhythmically and stylistically, and most likely challenged our audience too.
After the show last night I felt strangely purified – as if this long struggle with Machaut was finally complete. But I do hope we have opportunities to perform it again.
Our dream would be to tour our Machaut programme and share this wild and wonderful medieval music with many audiences.