The Story of E - Abstract

The Story of E
Presenter: Jennifer Bain, Dalhousie University

1952 marks the beginning of serious scholarship on the music of Guillaume de Machaut in North America; that year, Sarah Jane Williams, who subsequently founded the International Machaut Society, successfully completed her substantial and influential dissertation on Machaut’s music at Yale University. At the very end of her study she includes an Appendix called “The Manuscript E”, in which she explains why she left out discussion of that manuscript (Bibliothèque nationale, fonds français 9221):

The manuscript E, because of the many special problems it raises, was not discussed in the chapter on the chronology of the works. E, which belonged originally to the magnificent library of John, duke of Berry, is the most beautiful of the Machaut manuscripts, and one of the most unreliable. Machaut’s editors have often pointed out the faultiness of its literary and musical text, the peculiarities of its arrangement. Of the principal manuscripts, E is the least likely to have been prepared under Machaut’s supervision, and therefore least likely to represent one of the successive stages of the book in which Machaut wrote down his works. (Williams, 344; emphasis mine).

For musicologists, MS E’s lack of reliability and its lack of authority—lying outside of Machaut’s purview—has kept it at the margins of musicological interest. In the family of Machaut’s complete-works manuscripts, considered by Lawrence Earp as “the highest levels of transmission of Machaut’s works” (Earp 1995, 73), MS E remains a black sheep.

Certainly, the musical section of MS E bears no similarity to the analogous sections of Machaut’s other complete-works manuscripts in its grouping and ordering of Mass, motets, and songs. The motets, in particular, which appear in identical order in MSS A, B, C, F-G, and Vg not only sport a completely different arrangement, but are also intermingled with the rondeaux. Williams, and Friedrich Ludwig before her, attribute all of these differences to the exigencies of layout requirements or to seeming haphazardness. Describing Ludwig’s position, Williams says, for example, “Since E has an unusually large format, the motets do not fill a verso and recto side, as is usually the case, and the scribe uses the extra space to fill in the rondeaux.” (Williams, 347; after Ludwig, II, 11). Similarly, in describing the differences in the ordering of music in MS E she suggests that, “The order of the lais, as of all the musical categories, in E differs considerably from that of other manuscripts, and there seems to be no logic for these changes.” (Williams, 348). Some of the songs in MS E include an extra voice part not found in the other manuscripts, and as Earp reports in 2011, some of the works in MS E are not as accurately copied.

Yet, despite what musicologists regard as a somewhat sloppy attention to musical detail, as some recent scholarship has shown, in a number of ways the compilers of MS E thought very carefully about layout and the visual impact of Machaut’s narrative poems, particularly those which include music: the Remede de Fortune and the Voir dit (Butterfield 1995; McGrady 2006; Maxwell 2009). In this study, I will consider historiographically why Machaut’s authority has been so important to musicologists, but I will also look at the musical section in MS E anew. If we examine MS E not from the perspective of what it can tell us about Machaut’s ideas about his authorship but rather from what it can tell us about itself, what else can we learn from this extraordinary and beautiful book, owned by one of the foremost collectors of illuminated manuscripts in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries?