The tradition of courtly love

Expressed in the poetry and music of Guillaume de Machaut

The medieval period was a time of transition. While religion still played a large part in most lives, much of the thought was moving towards the secular - and the earthy in every sense. Feudalism, and the ideal of chivalry, inspired a notion of honour inspired by a lady’s favour. Imagination, too, reigned supreme, transmitted by the medieval mind into gargoyles, unicorns, and the poetry that was considered a natural form of expression.

Machaut’s work may be considered as “classical” music, and this too involved transition. Previously, the “good” music was entertainment for the nobility only, where it now was becoming a source of enjoyment for all classes.

It is no accident that the secular chanson blossomed in Machaut’s time. This was the result of developments during the previous two centuries. The troubadours and trouveres had established a variety of monophonic chanson types, from which the rondeau, virelai, and ballade emerged as a means of expression for both poet and musician. (Machaut was both.) The songs of the troubadours were built on the product of chivalric ideals: the notion of courtly love. Through Machaut and later master composers, the inspiration of the amour courtois gave birth to the chanson.

These songs are an early occurrence of “serious” music as an expression of the passions of mankind and, in this case, the romantic expression of several generations of courtly society. As would be typical of many later forms of songs, they are preoccupied with the pains of love more than with its joys. Nonetheless, they possess distinct characteristics which mirror the time during which they were composed.

Sharon Scholl, in “Music and the Culture of Man” (New York: Holt, 1970), provides valuable insight: “Love, often in the guise of subjective mysticism, was an underlying element in the religious thought of the Middle Ages. Philosophers such as Bonaventura and Duns Scotus stressed the power of love over intellect and glorified the intuitive apprehension of God. Dante was conducted through Hades by Virgil in the guise of human reason; only Beatrice in the role of Divine Love could guide him into heavenly realms. However, the love elements of the lyric poets idealised the emotional relationship between an individual man and woman. The Grail quest was translated into a quest for a lady’s favour. Heroism in a religious or political cause became self-cultivation in the code of chivalry. The lyric movement emphasised the conflicts growing within medieval society. Countering the monastic ideology of woman as an evil influence was the image of divine womanhood conceived by the French Provençal poets. The relationship of the knight and his adored lady became for many the only true measure of honour, justice and morality.”

These concepts may seem lofty, but, in truth, the impish medieval mentality of those who were not philosophers was merely loftiness in another guise. God and Divine Love was still man's focal point, even if the ecclesiastical hierarchy was a target for mockery and laughter. It was the concept of God that had changed. Simple faith was not lost, but minds that did not care to fathom the depths of divine love identified it with human love and its passions. God, as a symbol of love, was looking on with divine approval at all love relationships, including the illicit.

Love of the courtly tradition was seen as a chivalric quest for the beloved. It is natural, then, that the love was often unrequited, as fulfilment was an almost unattainable ideal. The poets presented love in a refined and stylized manner, using every dimension of the beauty of language and the expression of music. During the late Middle Ages, marriages were often arranged at birth, and may well have taken place when the partners were still children. As a result, the courtly society delighted in a tradition where women were infinitely beautiful and men unfailingly courteous; this fallacy romped beside the griffin in the imagination. The poets, disciplining poetic style where they could not discipline the emotions it expressed, borrowed the rhythms of the dance to form metrical poetic lines.

The immoral relationships in medieval poetry were not shocking to the people. In their scheme of marriage, pleasures derived from other sources were a bonus.

The immorality of the poetic characters may not be a true commentary on the standards of the people. These are literary devices, and the characters speak for themselves. However, a people who delighted in dreams could revel in the pleasant fantasy of idealised lovers who were not bound by moral standards.

Douglas Kelly (“Medieval Imagination”, Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1978) views Machaut’s use of the love tradition as a union of imagination and hope (pp. 146-148): “Machaut’s new conception of love is bound up with his attempt to fit good love into traditional ideals, and in particular into a Boethian framework... The union of reason and love accounts for the distinction between a good and bad lover... Here we encounter the emanation of an abstract principle into the frequent and varied realms of human activity and experience. Reason thus extends by Imagination the scope and instruction beyond love itself in order to situate and support the analysis of love...”

“In Machaut’s fixed forms we find the new conception of love in some poems, while others still advance the more conventional courtly love described in the Vergier and the Jugement Behaigne.... only among the lais does the new conception appear especially prominent. One has the impression that Machaut deemed the new love suitable to the most difficult and consequently most excellent fixed form...

The characteristics peculiar to Machaut’s conception of courtly love have significant implications for the notion of love as an art and for Imagination in the art of poetry. Certainly, the stress on hope and the resulting sublimation of desire had repercussions on otherwise conventional commonplaces, embroidered upon and varied in expression, but largely the same for most courtly love poets since the twelfth century. In particular the sublimation raises anew the question of the relation of the love Machaut describes to Christian morals... especially in light of his ‘idolatrous’ representations of the god of love and the image of the Lady.”

Thus far, I have devoted my attention primarily to Guillaume de Machaut as a poet, and with good reason. (Not only because I cannot share his works with you on my Web page... go and get the CD!) His words have much to tell us of the age in which he lived. His poems show the use of literary devices, where the connexions with real life may be tenuous but the powers of the imagination are foremost. Secularization was influencing literature, and affected music in much the same fashion. Also, the Middle Ages are a period unequalled for music and literature's being inseparable.

Machaut’s art lies in the subtle blend of words and music, the variation on unchanging themes. It is a formal, highly stylized mode of expression, in which the poet's aim is less to tell us of his own feelings than to show that he can handle a difficult and uncompromising poetic medium. As the chanson became more popular, a form of poetry hitherto reserved for the nobility became known to the general public. Poetry was still a normal form of expression, and music its welcome companion.

Thus, Machaut’s poetry is not secondary to his music, but is complementary. Words and music form the artistic whole wedding emotional expression and poetic form with the composer's flare for melody.

The musician Machaut’s chansons are notable for harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic innovations. Albert Seay (“Music in the Medieval World”, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965, page 144), writes: “Machaut’s life reflects the secularization of the century, for, although a cleric, his career was spent in secular circles; his connexions to the Church were at best tenuous, although his main source of income was as beneficiary of various religious posts. As secretary to one of the most active kings of the time, he had the opportunity to come in contact with almost every major court, and with the most cultivated societies of his time. For these circles, he produced poetry and music in about equal proportions, working for most of his life for one patron or another. The comparative profusion of sources containing Machaut’s work is, in part, due to this situation, for he had the custom of supervising the preparation of presentation manuscripts for his noble patrons and friends... The largest group of compositions are those based on the secular forms.... In these, Machaut shows his close relationship to the trouvere tradition...”

In addition to the monophonic styles derived from the troubadours, Machaut also borrowed from the polyphonic tradition of the Church. However, some of the characteristics of his works are in themselves innovative.

As was common for poets of the 14th century, Machaut used forms which did not vary, but which repeated the same combinations of stanza, rhyme, and rhythm. Previously, each new lyric had a form of its own.

Machaut’s “Hareu!-Helas! ou sera pris confors” was written for two counter-tenors, as is the case in many of the pieces. The first section contains strong images of the heart's being on fire with desire, to the point where it can burn to ash if the unrequited flame continues. The medieval age was a time of vivid and colourful styles: brightly dyed clothing, highly spiced foods, ornate architecture. The imagery of this song is powerful of necessity, to convey a message to an audience desiring passion and vivid imagery. Also, as is typical of the period's literature, emotions (such as Hardship, Pity, and Disdain) are personified, as well as Love.

The words of the second portion translate as: “Deprived of heart and hope, I cannot love for long. No man's heart can survive when once aflame.” Yet he continues! This view of unrequited, agonizing love and suffering interwoven is characteristic of the courtly love tradition.

“Trou plus et belle-Biautepar e devalour” shows a combination of pagan and Christian references. The first part praises woman as all beauty, kindness, and sundry perfections. It also refers to Venus: the lover implores the goddess to make the lady, whom he loves “more than his very soul”, desire him. Machaut’s age, when myths were still very popular, was one in which people could easily identify with such references. They also were a people who loved, and who were sensitive toward, magick, which was in no conflict with their Christianity (much as the hierarchy would disagree) so long as it was divine power, not evil, that was summoned.

In the second part, the lover also expressions his adoration of the Lady. (A true product of chivalry... every night had a lady!) However, in this section, the Christian God is implored to “look kindly on me, and, in keeping with Love and her honour, let me serve her like a true lover.” Though God was expected to approve any form of love, in this chanson, just in case, both Venus and the Almighty are implored for good measure.

The use of both mythological and Christian references, a practise that would endure through the Renaissance, has both literary and religious significance. Writers often used both simultaneously, “Paradise Lost” being a prime example, but, in the Middle Ages, the gods were not treated entirely as literary characters. Pagan beliefs, which might be termed a memory of the old gods, had not died out, and existed concurrently with Christian ideals.

A third voice in the chanson has but one line: “Even if a mistress I have none, yet I am a faithful lover.” Love in the courtly tradition in now way depended on mutual feelings. In fact, there are hardly ever bonds of affection, merely a one-sided feeling of worship.

The first two voices blend beautifully, in contrary motion. The third, though it ranges over several tones, is much like a drone accompaniment. The three independent lines achieve an intricate, harmonically gorgeous counterpoint. Each has its own melody, but no one predominates. In some parts, the second voice has a descant - the Christian God either counted first or was thought to have impaired hearing.

In another chanson, Machaut did not speak of the pain of love, but concentrated on the perfection of the Lady. Machaut describes the woman as beautiful and wondrous, and his one desire as being “to serve her constantly and selflessly.” Each stanza ends, “Dear God, how I love her, with a pure and faithful love!”

Perhaps this delightful vision of love says something about Machaut the cleric, poor specimen though he may have been. In a society where every knight had his adored lady, it is not surprising that this notion crept into the Church, which was in a sad state at the time. Devotion to the Virgin Mary, the ideal of purity and goodness, was the order of the day, practically out-ranking worship of the divine. Machaut and many others composed numerous songs in her praise.

Secularized adaptations of religious concepts was rampant in the Middle Ages. The parallel between the adored lady (object of “pure and faithful” love) and the Virgin Mary is highly possible.

“Quant Theseus-Ne quier veoir” contains references, in the first voice, to three mythological heroes who were great favourites in the literature of the period: Theseus, Hercules, and Jason. All quested for the unattainable - and eventually captured what they sought. The voice states a respect for these men, but adds that his goals are not as ambitious. He desires only beauty, for the sight of his lady is the fulfilment of all desires.

In the second voice, so completely does the contemplation (though not possession) of the Lady fulfil the lover's desire that he has no wish to hear more of the exploits of heroes. Machaut refers to Samson and Dalilah: the woman that hero loved led to his destruction. Clearly, further attention to the subject of heroes may cloud the essential image of the perfect lady.

The ballade “Phyton, le mervilleus serpent” has yet another image of the “perfect lady beyond one's grasp.” The lady’s feelings of refusal, haughtiness, and the like are described as the seven heads of a serpent. This thereby detaches the negative emotions the lady feels from her actual being, that they not hinder her perfection. It is not she who rejects the lover, but the serpent who impedes her love.

Guillaume mentions that the terrible monster Python was nowhere near as cruel as his serpent. (Charming analogy for a woman one loves!) But as Apollo, who conquered Python, was the god of music, perhaps there is a note of hope.

Where the poetry is sad, the music is not. The charming, even sprightly, melody transmits no feelings of despair. The vocal line is presented in contrary motion with a crum-horn, and a bass recorder provides a drone accompaniment.

Machaut also enjoyed composing in rondeau form. One chanson of that type is “Wuant j’ay t’espart”, whose text paints a truly noble picture of the female of the species. Indeed, lest we harbour any doubts, Machaut takes care to repeat the word several times.

The melody, in keeping with the noble tone of the poetry, is slow and very much like church music. It is gentle and beautiful, as I am sure the lady is, and decorated. The accompaniment is a drone on different pitches - there is no counterpoint.

The poetry provides constant allusions to love as being light and fire, and there is much mention of radiance. This resembles biblical references to divine love and glory, and the idea of auras surrounding those who love that belonged to popular folklore. In the Dark Ages, at least in the vision of the courtly, woman had the kingdom, the power, and the glory all too herself, even if religious thought of the period saw her as the root of evil.

There is no mention of pathos in this chanson, but, rather, a deep and haunting tenderness. The man both loves and reveres his lady, indeed stating that it is she who fills his heart with the very love he feels. She not only has his love but rules his heart.

These few examples illustrate Machaut’s versatility in musical form, the tradition of courtly love, and the Imagination of the Middle Ages. I present his work as a perfect example of the movements in music, literature, and state of mind at that transitory period.


© 1996 by Elizabeth G. Melillo - copyrights for quotations remain the property of their respective owners

"All that is not eternal is eternally out of date." - C.S. Lewis