For Valentine's Day, Machaut, a 14th Century Dylan

By James David Jacobs

Feb. 13

"Love first came to me in my state of innocence when youth governed me and kept me in idleness. My heart and thought came to be fixed ever on my Lady who is the most beautiful and best of all." - Machaut, from the Remede de Fortune

About twenty years ago I saw the great Hungarian singer Marta Sebastyen perform in San Francisco. Just before one of her songs, she said something to the effect of, "The reason most love songs are sad is because when you're happily in love you're too busy making love to sing." (I found out later that she met her future husband that day.)

There's a lot of beautiful sad love songs out there. John Dowland, in Elizabethan England, made sadness his brand: he called one of his melancholy lute pieces "Semper Dowland semper dolens." He wrote his own lyrics of which this is a typical example:

In darkness let me dwell, the ground shall sorrow be,
The roof despair to bar all cheerful light from me,
The walls of marble black that moisten'd still shall weep,
My music hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep.
Thus wedded to my woes, and bedded to my tomb,
O, let me, living, living, die, till death do come.

However, love songs don't get much sadder or more beautiful than Schubert's epic song cycle Winterreise, depicting a spurned lover's lonely heartbroken trek across a bleak snowy landscape (which resonates particularly strongly at the moment here in Boston!) On Sunday morning we'll hear selections from this cycle as transformed by Franz Liszt into solo piano works: more than mere transcriptions, they add another layer of expression and commentary on Wilhelm Müller's heartbreaking poetry.

We'll also hear selections from a much older song cycle. Guillaume de Machaut was a giant in the realms of both poetry and music, quite possibly the greatest poet/musician of all time. (In the image at left, from the 1300's, he's shown in an allegorical setting, receiving Nature and three of her children, including Sense, Rhetoric, and Music; from Wikimedia Commons.) He was perhaps the equal of Schubert, as well as of Dowland, in the lyricism of his text settings and ability to express vivid poetic images within strophic song forms. And while the mathematical complexity of his rondeaux puts him in the company of Bach and Schoenberg, his sophistication, sensuousness and popular appeal bring singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to mind. Like Dylan, he took a tradition of itinerant balladeers - in Machuat's case, the original troubadours (or trouveres) who could be heard all over Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries - and invested the style with intellectual rigor and worldly sophistication while retaining the primal appeal of folk music.

In 1340 he composed Remede de Fortune (The Cure for Ill Fortune), in which he details his travails with his Lady, as she is referred to. The Lady finds a love poem and asks our narrator if he wrote it; he did, and he wrote it for her, but instead of responding, he runs away out of shyness. He encounters the goddess Hope, who gives him the strength to make his feelings known to his Lady. All ends happily, though there is an episode of jealousy along the way. "Love brings a sweet life and attractive, if one knows how to live it, because the malady is so pleasing, when it is nourished by amorous desire, that it makes the lover rejoice and want to learn how it spreads. It is a sweet pain to bear, that brings joy to a lover's and a lady's heart."

Ensemble Project Ars Nova, which at the time of this recording in 1993 was in residence at Longy School of Music and made frequent appearances on WGBH, has never been bettered in their performances of this music. The voices of countertenor Michael Collver, mezzo-soprano Laurie Monahan and the late tenor John Fleagle offer three distinct personalities that nonetheless blend beautifully on the ensemble numbers, and the vielle players Shira Kammen and Robert Mealy offer instrumental playing that are so lyrically and emotionally attuned to the ensemble they could be considered the fourth and fifth voices. It's one of the greatest recordings ever made of Medieval music, and it'll be the perfect album to listen to on February 13 - because you won't have time to listen on Monday. Happy Valentine's Day.

More Arts & Drama


Sound Tracks


WGBH Music


Call the Midwife

Sign Up

Sign-up for WGBH Arts & Drama updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.

Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor