Guillaume de Machaut was one of the most accomplished poets and composers of the late medieval period. He lived from 1300 to 1377 and during his lifetime he penned down a rich body of poetry by making many stylistic innovations.
As a composer of music, Machaut was one of the most notable figures of the Ars Nova musical style which defined music in France and southern Europe in the late medieval period. As a poet, his standing was equally high and notable poets in later centuries, such as Chaucer in England, would be significantly influenced by his poetic works.
Guillaume de Machaut was born in 1300 in France. From an early age of 23, he became attached to the royal court of John I, King of Bohemia and the Count of Luxembourg, whom he served as a secretary. As part of the royal court of John I, Machaut would travel extensively around Europe and visit many places.
He was made a canon in 1330 and by this time, his poetic and musical works had earned him a widespread fame all over Europe. Following the death of John I in 1346, the services of Machaut were actively sought by many leading monarchs and aristocrats. He spent his final years in Reims in a comfortable retirement, compiling manuscripts of his complete works. He died in 1377.
Machaut penned down a large body of poetry during his lifetime. Most of Machaut’s lyric poems are about the themes of courtly love. Through his lyric poems, Machaut popularised the use of elaborate rhyme schemes, a feature which would become popular with the European poets in the 15th century.
Another notable part of Machaut’s poetry are the first-person narrative poems in which Machaut tackles more personal themes such as dreams and incidents of allegorical nature. Apart from the more common themes, Machaut dealt with unusual themes in his poetry as well such as topics related to moral philosophy.
As a poet, Machaut was acutely aware of the craft of poetry. This was manifest in an elaborate and highly authoritative treatise on the poetic craft which he penned down in his later years. In all, Machaut penned down nearly 235 ballades, 39 vierlais, 24 lais and 400 poems in his lifetime. His notable works of poetry include ‘The Cure of Ill Fortune’ and ‘A True Story’.
As a composer of music, Machaut was equally prodigious in his output but few of his works are extant today. He was the foremost exponents of the Ars Nova musical movement which marked the music of late medieval Europe, specifically France.
Through his secular compositions, Machaut laid the foundations for secular music and popularized many genres of secular music such as the motet, the ballade the virelai and the rondeau. His widespread fame as a composer came from the volume of his output and his creative genius which was manifest in many innovations he made in his musical compositions.
Machaut also composed a wide number of sacred musical pieces. Among his secular musical pieces, the most well-known is the ‘Mass of Our Lady’, the first cyclical mass to have been composed by a single composer.