Born in 1300, presumably in Rheims, France, Guillaume de Machaut was famous not only as a composer, but as a major French poet of the fourteenth century. Machaut left a large corpus of poetry in the popular romance form, mostly dealing with courtly love, and his style was widely favoured and copied by many succeeding poets, among them Geoffrey Chaucer, Jean Froissart, and Christine de Pizan, and set the stage for the Grandes Rhétoriquers of the next century. Guillaume de Machaut was employed as a secretary to King John of Bohemia, and it is quite likely that Machaut travelled with King John as far as Prague (in what is now the Czech Republic). Machaut also became a priest, and was installed as a canon at several parishes; however, at the request of Pope Benedict XII, he gave up all his other posts and lived full-time at Rheims. Machaut was one of the survivors of the fourteenth-century round of the Black Death, and died in 1377 at Rheims.
As a composer, Machaut is known for his Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady), the first complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass by a single composer, as well as for his courtly chansons. (The Mass is divided into two sections: the Ordinary, which remains the same day after day, and the Proper, which changes with the day, and sometimes several times in the same day.) Often Machaut’s chansons have a sacred text in Latin in the tenor, while the upper two voices sing secular French texts. Among the compositions that survive, in addition to the Our Lady Mass, are forty-two ballades, nineteen lais, twenty-four motets, twenty-two rondeaux, and thirty-three virelais. Machaut’s compositions were influential — certainly inspiring many succeeding generations of composers to write their own complete Masses — and, along with the trecento madrigal, the compositions of Guillaume de Machaut represent some of the best music of the fourteenth century.
In addition to the beautiful “Rose, Liz, Printemps, Verdure,” Machaut also wrote a famous chanson called “Ma fin est mon commencement” (“My End is My Beginning”), which exhibits the Medieval and Renaissance penchant for puzzles, both logical and musical. In this work for three voices, the second half of the tenor line is a mirror image of the first half; the other two voices swap in the middle and sing each other’s melody backwards.
Guillaume de Machaut was also a renowned poet, and helped to establish the formes fixes that would become a staple of late Medieval and early Renaissance French music. Towards the end of his life, Machaut wrote a treatise of poetry that was used as a standard for generations of poets who succeeded him.