This is an exciting time for anyone who wants to understand the roots of our heritage of so-called Classical or Western music, as more and more manuscript sources from long, long ago are made available digitally and in facsimile. What seems to be the earliest of the “complete works” of the 14th century’s most accomplished composer, Guillaume de Machaut, has had a more colourful history than most manuscripts: at various points in the possession of Jean, duc de Berry, Gaston Fébus, and the Marquis of Vogüé, the The Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript was stolen by the Nazis and stashed away by their Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in a castle “full of pianos, accordions, violins”, and though recovered after World War II, lay almost entirely inaccessible for another generation or two.

The Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript arrives at The Song Company. Photograph supplied

Fortunately, the manuscript now belongs to James E and Elizabeth J Ferrell – enlightened owners who have allowed the Oxford-based Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM) to publish a beautifully-produced edition in print as well as online, thereby making it finally available to scholars and performers across the globe, and enabling practising musicians like me to get ever closer to the world of our forebears and the way they did things way back when. In the 21st century, this manuscript, as DIAMM points out, has “gone from being the most secret and enigmatic of the Machaut sources to the most accessible”. The parcel that arrived a few weeks ago outside my front door weighed over seven kilograms, containing the facsimile of the Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript, which now graces the stage of The Song Company’s True-Love-Story tour – I even get to sing from it at one point.  The accompanying introduction is a weighty tome in itself, and throws new and intriguing light on the manuscript from multiple scholarly angles under the editorship of Lawrence Earp.

I fell for the music of Guillaume de Machaut when I first came across it as a green Oxford student: striking out as a composer myself, I was struck in particular by a moment in the Agnus Dei of his Mass setting where an F, an F sharp and a G occur at the same time: this is a fairly extreme dissonance, brought about by the voice parts moving in different directions and would not be out of place in Webern or Stravinsky, or even in the blues-inflected modality of some modern pop. Machaut’s music has a effect comparable to the rose windows of medieval cathedrals such as the one he lived next door to in Rheims, and lavish tapestries such as The Lady and the Unicorn: it stuns with intense harmonic colour and intrigues with melodic detail and rhythmic chicanery.

Machaut wasn’t just a notes-smith, though: in the 14th century he was primarily known as one of the finest poets of the day. His musical experimentation was seeded in an experience of poetic form and wordplay refined in the most privileged cultural environments of court and cathedral. But some of his techniques seem very modern: he once spun a lengthy narrative on the capture of Alexandria in 1365 in which he incorporated the texts of interviews with real people. And perhaps the ultimate 14th-century multimedia presentation is the combination of story, poems, letters, music, and pictures recounting Machaut’s partially-requited love for the young noblewoman Péronnelle in Le Voir Dit (the “true story”). The Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript was copied out under his supervision in the 1360s, just as his love affair with the much younger “Toute Belle” was happening – or at least being written and talked about: it contains all but one of the pieces of music that are featured in Machaut’s autobiographical tale.

My own love affair with his music gradually blossomed into a full-blown preoccupation with the character and exploits of this extraordinary medieval man, including producing a recording with the Oxford Camerata in Rheims Cathedral and writing a radiogenic fantasy/opera with the poet Richard Gaskell called Virtual Strangers. Back in 2000 I devised and took part in a 700th-anniversary celebration of Machaut’s birth on BBC Radio 3 with Daniel Leech-Wilkinson. At the York Early Music Festival and then at Opera Fringe, Northern Ireland my British ensemble TONUS PEREGRINUS first presented the words and music of Guillaume de Machaut and his super-fan Péronnelle in the format which The Song Company is now touring in a new production by Leonie Cambage.

So I find it easy to understand why the 14th century’s most celebrated composer and poet attracted the attention of Péronnelle. Whether or not Guillaume was quite the medieval superstar that we can compare next to celebrities from our own time, on his death in 1377 a poet of the next generation, Eustace Deschamps (who also was to try his luck wooing Péronne, though less successfully) called for widespread mourning:

“War and love, knights and ladies,
Priests, musicians, poets,
All wits, all poems,
All you with sweet voices,
or who sing with instruments,
and cherish the gentle art of music:
wear mourning now, and weep; it is time.
Machaut, the noble poet, is dead.”

Antony Pitts reviews the Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript in the September issue of Limelight

The Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript is published by DIAMM:

The Song Company’s True-Love-Story tour plays in Wollongong on June 17, Newcastle on June 21, North Sydney on June 23, and Bathurst on June 26