Guillaume de Machaut was the first Western composer to make it relatively easy on scholars through compiling a coherent, authorized text for his entire musical output, subsequently copied as a whole. At least six manuscripts survive, which attest to this late career endeavor, and it transmits to posterity what Machaut believed was worth keeping of his legacy. The details are consistent from copy to copy as to Machaut's odd harmonic thinking, which contains frequent dissonances and tonal combinations so far out that many twentieth century composers would never have thought of them; his fluid, multilayered approach to rhythm is easier to reconcile with the music of the fourteenth century and particularly the Codex Chantilly, a manuscript heavily influenced by the example of his music. Nevertheless, these stylistic devices have led to an avant-garde aspect in interpreting Machaut that makes him sound like arcane, alien outer space music rather than something that might belong in a fourteenth century French court. Enter Ensemble Musica Nova and the Aeon release Guillaume de Machaut: Ballades, which takes advantage of the most up-to-date scholarship to flesh out what Machaut's manuscripts tell us and brings this great composer into sharper focus perhaps than in any other, prior release of his secular music.
The ballades -- musical settings of French courtly love poetry, a genre in which Machaut wrote more than 200 texts, but only set 42 of them to music -- represent Machaut at his most involved in the secular sphere, both as poet and composer. The manuscripts of these polyphonic pieces are laid out with different lines of text given among the various voices, generally consisting of textures of two to three voices, though in some two-voice music Machaut clearly intended for a third to be supplied by another hand. Most often interpreters just play such music as it lies, performing it front to back as it appears in the manuscript, resulting in pieces only two or so minutes in length, densely busy polyphonically with the multiple texts running by in a jumble that might have left the average fourteenth century French nobleman scratching his head. In most cases, Ensemble Musica Nova elects for individual voices to have their say before the whole is heard, a practice that makes total sense and, along with tactfully executed instrumental inserts and other devices, stretch these pieces out to a more practical and lyrical five to seven minutes. Ensemble Musica Nova has also consulted the most up-to-date scholarship in regard to Machaut's French and its proper pronunciation. Many to most performances attempt to execute Machaut within approximated modern French which makes mincemeat of his rhymes, or to undertake an unusually nasal sounding imagined middle French that is unmusical and unattractive sounding. The more reasonable solutions Ensemble Musica Nova undertakes sounds like real speech and helps to project the music, adding corners and points of attention in these complex pieces that aid one's grasp of them, such as in Se quanque amours and Sans cuer men vois dolens.
Machaut hasn't entirely lost his weirdly otherworldly appeal; Il mest avis still contains the same strange, hair-raising sonorities associated with him. This is one element in Machaut you cannot smooth over, even with the most liberally applied second-guessing in terms of musica ficta. But overall there is a softness and natural style of delivery and blend that distinguish Ensemble Musica Nova's rendering of Machaut's secular music from just about any other recording of the ballades. If you think you love -- or for that matter, even know -- Machaut's secular music, then you owe it to yourself to try Aeon's Guillaume de Machaut: Ballades; you might find yourself loving him just that much more.