What My Melodies Learned from Machaut

Although his music is over 600 years old, the elements Guillaume de Machaut brought to melody are still relevant

So often now we take syncopated rhythms for granted. We think of the great counterpoint masters like JS Bach and feel as if that's where it all started. Yet, nearly 300 years before Bach was composing in Leipzig, Machaut was writing Isometric music which lays the foundation for rhythmic melodic writing.

Here are a couple of examples on YouTube which include the score to follow:

In Qant je ne voy at measure 4 he puts a dotted quartet (crochet) note followed by an eighth (quaver) note to lighten the straight quarter note rhythm. The very next measure the final eighth note is held across the bar line with a syncopated quarter note rhythm in measure 7. The Amours me fait des has a similar effect in measure 3 of the top line with an eighth note preceding two quarter notes to syncopate the rhythm, and again in measure 5. Compare that with bottom line in measure 3 or the middle line in measure 5 and you'll see the lovely way these lines fit together creating a playfulness in the music.

One of my current projects is an orchestral dance. Because I tended to use odd time signatures, it's important for there to be a consistent pulse behind the music beyond just the conductor waving his baton. This pulse keeps the motion of the piece clear to the other players who then play their syncopated melodies over top. Hammer Dances is written in 19/8 or eighth notes grouped in beats (3-2)(3-2)(3-2)(2-2). There is sense of both simple and duple meter --four large beats in the bar, with each beat broken into a waltz like meter 3-2.

In this first example, the celeste (2nd line) is playing the continuous repetitive rhythm, with the melody in the Flutes and Violin I. The Violin II and Viola's are accenting elements of the perpetual rhythm. While it's nice, the music is rather uneventful. Here's a short audio example of that section of music.

The second example has a number of changes to brighten the music. The first is the celeste. Rather than a simple, continuous series of eighth notes, the rhythm is syncopated into dotted eighth-sixteenth-eighth in the first couple of 3 eighth groups. This lifts the rhythm, lightens it.

The same effect was put into the melody for the third eighth group. So, as the music line progresses, the melody and the accompaniment are offset. The written example is about 32 seconds into the audio after the brass section.

The melody is also broken between flutes and reeds, flutes in the first bar with oboe and clarinets for the second. This shifts the tonal color and gives the players a chance to breath. The line is continuous in the Violin I to blend.

The initial concept of Hammer Dance was to create a dance in an odd meter, 19/8. Again, to effectively achieve the meter with a large ensemble it is important to have something for the musicians to grasp, a continuous under pinning of the rhythm - thus the celeste. However, to give the music the lightness it needs, I employed elements of Machaut, offset syncopation in the both the melody and the continuous rhythm. Now the music truly dances.


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