Mass: Agnus Dei
Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 4-6
Machaut's syncopation did more than move the flesh. We have here four voices tangled as the voices we heard in the preceding rondeau. But these voices achieve a sound that alerts our more reverent and respectable natures. Unlike a song for lovers, this music makes no attempt to come to the listener or performer. Like much great music, this piece inspires the listeners and performers by challenging them to understand musical ideas that initially seem opaque. And, perhaps, was inspired by the potential Machaut could see in his performers.
The dissonance of this piece is more than harmonic clashes. In fact, the harmony is almost incidental. The lower two voices, the foundation of the work, are not easily distinct from each other nor are they easy to follow. The upper voices are not distinct from each other either and their motions seem to avoid any theme remotely suitable for a rondeau. There is an ecstasy in the faster and unpredictable motion of these upper voices. But this ecstatic dissonance is tempered by the frequent rests the performers and listeners are given in the form of long, open-sounding sonorities.
What I like about this piece is the way the moments of rest create an anticipation for the moments of dissonance. The disparate notes that appear unexpectedly on weak beats would be too much if they were all we heard. But, the more we listen to them the more, after a short break, we feel we can begin to anticipate them and understand.