Welcome to the Machaut/Hyperion project. The aim of this section of our website is to give you some background about Machaut, about Hyperion, and about the various discs we have been recording since 2012. You can read about how the project got started, how we record, and then you can take a look and a listen to the results of our labours in the various pages dedicated to the individual discs. And if you are entirely new to this field and don’t know a hocket from a rackett, then this guide to medieval and Renaissance music may well come in handy.
So who was this Guillaume de Machaut? There is plenty of information out there (and here is a good place to start), but perhaps the easiest way in is to think of him as the French Chaucer – Machaut’s dates are c.1300- 1377 and Geoffrey Chaucer’s are c.1343- 1400 – though with one important distinction: Machaut wasn’t just the most important French poet of the fourteenth century; he was also France’s and Europe’s finest composer. As well as a host of secular pieces, he also wrote sacred music, including the famous Messe de Notre Dame, composed in the 1360s for Rheims Cathedral where he was a canon in later life. The mass, as well as being a wonderful piece of music, is important for being the first setting by a single composer of the Ordinary of the Mass (the six main movements – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Ite missa est).
The focus of the Hyperion project is the chansons, i.e. the songs, with a primary emphasis on the polyphonic chansons, which is to say those in more than one vocal part. This allows us to feature some of the solo songs and the lais – long narrative poems – both because they are very important works and because they lend variety and interest. A striking feature of these songs is how singular their literary themes are, almost all of which emerge from the courtly love tradition. They are written from the point of view of a man and are about the woman whom he holds in such high esteem that he seems more comfortable with his suffering than with doing anything about it. There are, then, no depictions of carnal love, not even a chaste peck on the cheek, and instead the man wallows in his misery, for which he blames the object of his desire. This approach will be familiar to all who have ever suffered the pain of unrequited love, and the theme emerges in the Romantic era and in our own modern era too. Umberto Eco pinned it down nicely when he described the state of mind that such poetry describes as ‘a devastating unhappy happiness’.
For all of that, there is a richness and variance in the poetry that means the idea never gets too repetitive, much as one might want to urge the lover to do something rather than moan about it. And the music has similar range and interest. But if the poetic theme is refound in later literature, the musical style is distinct and utterly different. Melodically, the musical lines are unpredictable, or at least not predictable from our modern perspective. Odd leaps and angular rhythms characterise the vocal lines, the lower ones of which have no text. That might suggest that these parts are meant to be played on instruments rather than sung, but music history and contemporary evidence suggests otherwise. Besides, no-one baulks at backing vocals today or the oohing and aahing of popular a cappella arrangements. And we have now sung so much of this repertoire, and earlier and later medieval repertoire as well, without text that it feels like second nature.
So please come and explore this extraordinary music with us. You can discover how it all began and how we record. Here, also, is a list of the discs that have been released thus far. Click on these and you will find a desription of each, with details of recording, some sound clips and reviews.