Exalted Virelai (after Guillaume de Machaut)

for orchestra (1998)

Commissioned by the California Symphony Orchestra
Premiere: California Symphony Orchestra/Barry Jekowsky, conductor, 1998
Duration 14:00 - - timp; 3 perc; pno - str

The chansons of Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) are concerned primarily with the chivalrous medieval notion of courtly love. A poet who may have influenced Chaucer, Machaut is widely regarded as the greatest composer of the Middle Ages. His music is remarkably well-preserved in thirty-two separate manuscripts, which contain examples of both sacred and secular works.

The virelai, of which he wrote thirty-three, is composed of a refrain and three verses of text which are set to two different phrases of music. Characterized by a dance-like sentiment, Machaut’s virelais predate the use of meter (such as 4/4 or 6/ 8) as we know it today and rely upon a series of rhythmic modes as a means of assigning duration to pitch. These six modes were made up of long and short values combined in various ways and strung together in concordance with the rhythm of the text. No barlines existed in the music of Machaut and his contemporaries and the result is a music delightfully free of potentially monotonous rhythmic regularity, buoyant and alive in its ability to constantly challenge the modern listener’s sense of “where the beat is”.

I was introduced to the virelai contained in Machaut’s narrative poem Remede de Fortune by Virginia Newes, Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music. The song has as its theme unattainable love (Machaut probably composed and performed this tune for the lady of his patron’s estate and certainly to no avail; the status of composer in Machaut’s time was one of servitude). The refrain, translated, is:

My lady, to you without reservation
I give my heart, thought, desire
Body, and love,
As to the very best woman
Who can be chosen,
Or who can live or die
In this time.

The music is simply a beautifully-constructed melody, probably sung with some sort of rhythmic accompaniment although none is specifically indicated by the composer

It was my intention to use the resources of the modem orchestra as a vehicle for elevating this modest romantic petition to euphoric heights, not as an improvement on Machaut’s composition or its message, but as an amplification of it. To this unharmonized tune, I added my own rhythmic accompaniment as well as a series of chords, which supports the melody. Out of necessity I assigned a metrical scheme to Machaut’s melody (an entire orchestra playing this kind of music without barlines would be a disaster!). I decided early on to refrain from turning the piece into a set of highly abstract, unrecognizable variations only loosely based on the original. Confident that my own compositional voice would be apparent through the piece’s narrative, orchestrational, and harmonic features, I tried to keep all of Machaut’s tune intact, although some fragmenting became necessary. Sometimes the two phrases of the virelai are played simultaneously, at different speeds. At one point, the woodwinds play three-voice canons made up of melodic fragments of the tune, accompanied by my own harmonic pattern.

Exalted Virelai pays homage to the genius of Guillaume de Machaut and to the ageless power of romantic love.

−Kevin Puts