Music and verbal meaning: Machaut’s polytextual songs (contains links to full text)

Opening of Machaut’s De triste/Quant/Certes (B29)

A paper showing that the music’s functional, contrapuntal aspect can significantly inflect the meaning of the texts that it delivers.

This article argues that our modern experience of songs and singing, whether expert, amateur, or entirely uninformed and passive, is almost completely misleading when it comes to appreciating the singing of late-medieval lyric. The focus here is on polyphonic songs that align several texts for simultaneous delivery—a somewhat special category of work. Machaut wrote three such works: Sans cuer/Amis/Dame (B17), Quant Theseus/Ne quier (B34) and De triste cuer/Quant/Certes (B29). I consider the first two of these briefly before focusing on the last one, B29, to show that the argument that the three differently texted voices present is significantly inflected by the musical (specifically the functional, contrapuntal) relationship between the voices that carry them.


Music’s centrality to the construction of meaning in the texts of B29 and the other polytextual pieces reflects the broader cultural use of music as a meaningful—and not just a pleasant—component of lyric performance. I aim to bring out the potential significance of the dimension of performance—specifically sung musical performance—to scholars who normally consider only written forms of such works, whether poetic or musical. This article thus addresses both those literary scholars who might want to know what kinds of meanings a musical setting might add to a written poem that they usually consider just as verbal text (written or spoken) and those musicologists who might want to consider the performed moment of a piece in conjunction with their more usual “reading” of it as a notated modern score.

The online subscription version (available via CUP) is accompanied by sound files that enable the listener to hear the individual voice parts, any two in combination, and the complete three-part balade.

Link to the full-text PDF. Published as Elizabeth Eva Leach, “Music and Verbal Meaning: Machaut’s Polytextual Songs,” Speculum 85/3 (2010), 567-591. © Cambridge University Press 2010. Reprinted with permission.

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