Monday, 30 October 2017

Machaut and the Salamanders








There is a record I have been beating around to write about for years. 
Why? This was penned in the nicest fashion by Szerb Antal; we do remember how Utas és Holdvilág starts, right the first page, second paragraph; we have just opened the book. I have encountered such an upbeat nowhere else:

During his protracted years of wandering he had travelled in many lands, and spent long periods in France and England. But Italy he had always avoided, feeling the time had not yet come, that he was not yet ready for it. Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.


…and I fear the Machaut record with the Salamander.


For the cover already is weird. The pink colour is like the yellow patch on a salamander, it warns the predators to be careful, it might be bitter. Or, without initiation, even venous. Do not chow it down avariciously. 

For this music is 300 years older than the ones I am generally fond of, although they are pretty old too. It comes from an age which is a laid table for the experts to debate about matters, a shaky ground, imprecise, absent and often false chronicles, dusty, half-burnt paper piles scattered about in wars.
For it is intellectually disturbing.
For there is a huge appeal in its strangeness, which is mostly incomprehensible today.

For it is the most beautiful music I have ever heard.



Guillaume de Machaut was born in 1300, he served John Luxemburg Czech king first; then he became canon of Rheims under Charles Navarra. He was also a very famous poet; his music was so popular that his works were found in over 70 manuscripts, which seems absolutely unique in knowledge of the 14th century.

The tools of the time was so different from those of today that it is a wonder that we can listen to this CD. First, the era is before the major-minor hegemony. It is hard to imagine for mind you, we are holding the guitar, we have the lyrics of The House of the Rising Sun in mind, but we must not use either the major or minor chords…


Which interval was harmonious and which was not is even astonishing. 
Namely, it is the third on which today’s music is built. The use of third was limited the time. 
Why? 
Because it was regarded dissonant, imperfect; they said so with a piteous, patronizing tone.
What was perfect, we are at loss?, there were the two hotshots, the Divine Octave known as Perfect Prima, and, of course, the Quint, the universal superstar. 


Scraping our semi-knowledge of tuning systems together, indeed, the octave existed as a base from the metaphysical far-away mist. Where Pythagoras would not understand what cannot be comprehended for it is the sound base partition, there are seven spheres, seven planets, seven colours, seven gulps in a glass of water which are swallowed in seven seconds each. And the quint is always a clear quint, pure quint is the whole [Hungarian] name. 


According to physics, if we should find mysticism too much, the overtone lines of the hit sound start with octave, quint, octave quint (again), third, then the others, so the tone is built up simply this way, rather than according to third step. 

So we are living now in the third-polluted era.:) What a strange...

On the one hand, the judgement of harmony is basically different, on the other hand, there was real polyphony with genuine, equal parts as regarded even today, and the basic aesthetical principle of counter-motion and mirror construction valid today existed already, no matter how weird it is. 

Mainly if we have a glance at the calendar while standing in the mud sunk to the knees somewhere in the drainage of a big river among birds, fishes and salamanders, where the Square of Franciscans lies today…


There are even more oddities. 
Series of intended breaks sound at times, the part is interrupted. It is the hoquetus which really means hiccup where the aborted part is taken over by another and is served between them like a baton.
Then here is isorhythmia peculiar to motets. 
What is this? It is the multiple repetition of similar rhythms. This does not help us much for we could say that it is ab ovo true for most music. However, Ars Nova was such a long time ago that we bump into something incomprehensible again, that is, the rhythm (talea) and the melody (colour) moved entirely separately. The rhythm line and melody line were almost never of the same length, so if they were interlocked then, according to the rules of interference they clustered on given nods, e.g., at the end or middle of each third or seventh phase or anywhere but very precisely. 


Why is it such a big deal? 
On the one hand, it could occur with different melodies during the repetitive rhythm so new themes were borne continually; on the other hand, there was complete freedom until the meeting points which were filled with insane diminutions or ornamentations at times. 
Yes, here is the root of “free music” and when we listen to a sonata of classical music it is like putting our heads in a compractor...


As the music progresses the feeling of harmony enhances. It comes from our enthusiasm but it is grounded too. For in the era of Ars Nova the music is in motion; each chord thrives toward perfect, i.e., semi-perfect toward perfect, and imperfect toward semi-perfect, so harmony is being built up. All this in a way that dissonance is given place, not only because it could not be bypassed during the conduct of the counter-point, but because it is the real driving force of the progress from chord to chord. Do not believe that the latter went smoothly; Machaut was attacked for this false love; it did not fit in the system the time.

The whole is pervaded by the principle of Renaissance unity; there are no triads bringing the difference of the individual where one wears a red pullover, the other a black one, here the colour of outfit does not count but the fact what kind of human beings we are counts. It is a much more honest music, at least it is exempt from accretions.


All motets are included on the record, the forms are various, simple monody, instrumental diminution, a capella, virelai, chanson, we have everything, the theme is Death, Love and Hope in the secular world of the clerical and chivalric ideal. The base of traditional motet is a Gregorian as lower part, the tenor, generally unrecognisably for the rhythm is completely different; dulpum and triplum are built upon this, and sometimes a counter-tenor fourth part.
It can be listened to more easily because Machaut placed the melody on the usual tenor part but the uppermost; it was a bold thing even that time, we can imagine what brevity it was to take everything else from underneath the upper part by Caccini, only an accompanying bass was left, it became Nuove Musiche, the monody, it opened the door for opera as a genre. This melody-oriented thinking is so trivial today that it is hard to understand that it was not so for centuries; so Machaut hanged out a bit, try to listen to his contemporaries or Josquin’s music a long time later, we can hardly make the basic melody out of the intricacy of the parts.


Do not search for the melodiousness of Vivaldi for do not have illusions; this music is extremely hard to listen to in a way that we can understand something of it. You need not be sad, it was that simple even the time; Jean de Crounchy says that the piece ought not to be performed in front of an ordinary audience but for well-trained ears who adore the niceties of the notes penetrating into the arts
All this 650 years ago.
Madness, is not it?


Do we know of more authors like him?
One off hand, for sure. Myself, as an Early Music fan, Bach’s music sprawls on my horizon, it is unavoidable, it floats like a big Zeppelin, it overshadows everything; you can but make comparisons. Bach and Machaut are at the two ends of an era with a distance of 400 years.
Was there any development or time passed only?
Let us agree to that everyone has their own answer and one from the encyclopaedia.

Bach’s music became theoretical and Machaut’s music metaphysical.
What does it mean? One is a master’s filtrate of theories built on the seeming world, we divide-multiply-do mathematics, the other lets the ancient unity through itself, the fragment of primordial existence.

One had all the spices at hand, the other had the salt only.


Both are good cooks but our taste of dishes are heavily different. And they are indeed; although one of them is a poet as great as Petrarca or Dante, at the moment the spice kitchen has a hard-on.



The ensemble is relatively unknown. Their approach is adorable for they made research and contemplated for two years how to serve all this. Their sophistication reveals in that they took time to figure out which old French dialect should be presented on the record.
We speak of poetry, poems, for the texts of the motets were loaned mainly from the secular repertoire and we must not forget that the music was not the train and subordinate of the lyrics but the prima, so if the verse foot did not work out, it was not possible to tailor the rhythm like today.
Are they simple little poems or even doggerels?
Well, we mishit all right as the lyrics is so multifaceted and multilevel that the expression textual polyphony was borne, the rest can only be guessed or I could write the matrixes about the Biblical references and arithmetical rule systems, the rhythm of verse forms, the places of syllables, the morphological accent dislocations and the like for weeks…





Well, after all this, shall we insert the CD or have a drink rather…?
Both are good ideas, we might as well do both.


Following the scaring there is no table of parts or isorythmia or the motion of semi-perfect.



What comes is something like a sudden ray of the Sun.
Some marvel.
A fine, nicely arched textile unrolls. It is very unusual and fine; we are filled by the rhythm of the lyrics and music; something novel we have not yet heard, or we picked the scattered morsels of it.

We have a slight presumption what it will be like at first…extravagant, it is the right word. The voices are phenomenal; it is like a choir of pow-wow verse, or a heart-breaking lover’s confession about the setting Moon. The rising beauty shakes nicely and definitely. It arouses because our [Hungarian] language is nice so it elevates for it is some upper music which can only elevate…


I know that many doors are locked, the bolts and padlocks are rusty; some will get their finger pricked, some will run away, some will not understand it, some will not like it. It is completely irrelevant. This music exists and works if many listen to it or no one. Its fractal network solidly built in the musical ground is unbreakable.


It is truly like a Salamander.
...of which it is common knowledge that it is unperishable, was never born and will never die, water does not hurt it; fire does not burn it because it lives inside fire.


And, indeed, the greatest joy in music to make it familiar with others.



As for me, I am happy that someone entrenched the topic with a great heart and showed how the planets rotated then.




Absolutely recommended.













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Thank you for  the great help coming from my musician friends.
I have the red pullover.

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Szerb Antal: Utas és Holdvilág
Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight
Highly recommended
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About primordial existence read more in the works of Hamvas Béla.







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Thank you for the images.
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