My End is My Beginning: "Popular" (?) Music from 14th Century France: Part 3

Today, Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 - 1377) is considered the most prominent composer and poet of the 14th century, bridging the musical styles of the ars antiqua and ars nova and influencing proceeding poets like Geoffrey Chaucer. He benefits greatly in modern scholarship by being one of the few composers of medieval music for whom biographical information is available. Furthermore, his own ego has served his continued fame well, for throughout his life he oversaw numerous compilations of his entire oeuvre, a practice very uncommon before the 15th century. These compilations have lasted the ages and given modern scholars a nearly comprehensive understanding of his style and works, both musical and poetic.

Machaut’s penchant of compiling his own works is peculiar for his time. Most music from the time of its first notated appearances in Europe through the 16th century and beyond circulated anonymously. As time passed, more and more scribed and printed musical sources included composer attribution, but even in the 18th century there were still examples of well composed music by anonymous sources. Even a well-known master like JS Bach would, on occasion, not include his name on his music. Ascribing one’s name to one’s own music didn’t start to become popular until the 15th century and wasn't obligatory until the 18th. For Machaut to have complied his works on numerous occasions throughout his life suggests either that his music was extremely in demand and needed circulation and/or that he was very self-confident in his work’s importance.

Although the compilation of an opera omnia of this magnitude and depth was abnormal in Machaut’s time, it was not unheard of. Two prominent examples of self-ascription that predate Machaut include Hildegard von Bingen’s (1098 - 1179) Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum and Adam de la Halle’s (ca 1237 - 1288) unnamed manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS fonds français 25566).

The earliest complete-works source by Machaut (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS C fonds français 1586) dates from the mid-1350s at the royal court in Paris. This book, commonly known as “Manuscript-C” provides the prototype for all successive Machaut manuscripts during his later life. It begins with his narrative poetry, shifting to musical types through the introduction of his lyric poetry, concluding with his more elaborate polyphonic musical settings. Most scholars agree that this source includes virtually all the poetry and music Machaut had written up to this time (or at least includes all the poetry and music Machaut believed worth recording for posterity – what composer hasn’t written a flop in their younger years?). Consequently, any work not contained in Manuscript-C is assumed to have been composed after 1350, which is the likely case for the piece featured this week, “Ma fin est mon commencement.”

This rondeau comes down to us in three later compilation sources: Manuscripts A, E, and G. Of the three compendiums, it is possible (however contested by the work of William W. Kibler and James I. Wimsatt) that Machaut oversaw the writing of Manuscript-A. Due to the fact that Manuscript-A has a number of errors when compared to other sources, it is possible that Machaut did not closely oversee its creation, still leaving Manuscript-C as the “go-to” source for most of his music. However, since Ma fin est mon commencement is not in Manuscript-C, we must go to later sources for its transcription.

Manuscript-A (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS fonds français 1584) was copied sometime during the early 1370s, possibly in Reims. This date of compilation places it at the end of Machaut’s life. Thus, MS-A likely contains those compositions written between the 1750s and Machaut’s final years, and those compositions he deemed worthy of the ages. Indeed, here we find Ma fin est mon commencement, which had not appeared in the early MS-C, suggesting that this is one of Machaut’s later master works.

Of further interest in MS-A are a couple of illuminated miniatures, which give us our only pictorial representations of Machaut. The first depiction (on folio Dr) is of Amours introducing his children (Dous Penser, Plaisance, and Esperance) to Machaut. The second depiction (on folio Er) is of Nature introducing her children (Sens, Retorique and Musique) to Machaut. They are displayed below.

This source also includes a table of contents with the heading, “Vesci l’ordenance que G. de Machau wet qu’il ait en son livre” (Here is the order that G. de Machaut wants his book to have). This evidences that the manuscript’s creation was possibly overseen by Machaut. Furthermore, this ordering suggests that these pieces do not necessarily have some arbitrary order, such as chronological, alphabetical, or formal. Machaut’s ordering is perhaps meaningful on a more esoteric level.

Ma fin est mon commencement is a piece listed in MS-A’s table of contents under the genre heading “Rondeaus.” The form of a 14th century Rondeau is AB-aA-ab-AB, with letters representing musical content and capitalization representing text content. Where a letter is capitalized, the same text and music as before appear. Where a letter is lowercase, the same music but different text appears. You can see how the form matches the text for the piece at the end of this post (letters of the form are corresponded to their respective line of text).

The musical content of this Rondeau is particularly interesting, as hinted at by the title, which translates as "In my end is my beginning.” As you can see in my animation given in the YouTube link above, the music is not always read from left to right, but sometimes starts to move in reverse. This is because this music actually "retrogrades" in a variety of ways between verses 1 & 2, 5 & 6, and 7 & 8.

For example, at the end of the first line "Ma fin ce mon commencement," the Tenor (lowest voice) begins to read his music backwards. Meanwhile, the Triplum (top line) and Cantus (middle line) swap lines. The Triplum moves down and reads the Cantus backwards while the Cantus moves up and reads the Triplum backwards. In this way, the beginning of the verse becomes the end of the verse.

How Machaut has cleverly conceived of this music can be seen in his original scores provided below. Here are the three sources of this piece from Manuscripts A, E, and G.

Paris, Bibliothèque national de France MS A fonds fr. 1584. 479v-480r. Ma fin est mon commencement comprises the last system of the first page and continues for the top four systems of the second page.

Paris, Bibliothèque national de France MS E fonds fr. 9221. 135v-136r. Ma fin est mon commencement comprises the fourth through seventh system on this page.

Paris, Bibliothèque national de France MS G fonds fr. 22546. 153r. Ma fin est mon commencement comprises the left half of this page.

Take MS-G for example, through this also works for MS-E. Notice how the large ornamented letters appear mostly at the right of the music’s and text’s line. In MS-G the musical part in the upper left corner defines this expectation by placing its ornamental letter on the lower left of the music. This is because Machaut is telling the music’s reader that what appears to be the end is actually the beginning as well. This should be read backwards from right to left and bottom to top. Furthermore, there would be no sensible reason to write the music like this if it were not also meant to be read as would be expected – with the beginning at the top left corner. Thus, Machaut has written it to indicate that the music in the upper left corner should be read both forwards and backwards simultaneously to generate the Cantus and Triplum.

The top two parts having been accounted for, the lowest voice is notated in the lower left corner. It is clear by the ornamental lettering that it should be read starting at its top left corner, however if you were to count the notes (and rhythms if you’re familiar with ars nova notation), you would notice that there are not enough to correspond with the upper voices. In fact, the rhythmic time is half of what is needed. If you look closely at the text setting in MS-G’s Tenor part (here indicated as the Countertenor), there is also a hint for what to do.

Notice how there is an empty third musical stave below the Tenor’s (Countertenor's) part with text indicated. Also notice, how such text is not on the other empty staves throughout. The written text and missing music, indicate that the music is already inherent in what has been written and the performer only need realize how to generate it.

The full text of the music reveals the secret when it says, “Mes tiers chans trois fois seulement se retrograde et einse fin.” (“My third melody three times only reverses itself and thus ends.” This tells the performer to sing the part backwards once its lower right end has been reached. This supplies the second half of the Tenor's (Countertenor’s) part. In Manuscript-E, the reversal of the Tenor part is also hinted at by the inscription of the part’s name upside down at its beginning as seen below. The part may be sung as is notated (from left to right), but to read the "Tenor" as is written, one must reverse the music and come back it its beginning.

The nature of this piece is quaintly encapsulated by a miniature in the margins of Manuscript-A. Here, the scribe has depicted a dragon (or some kind of beast) eating its own tail, making its end its beginning and its beginning its end.

Machaut provides variety and variation by simply reversing the original music. Ultimately, the Triplum line is just the Cantus line sung backwards and the Tenor line is a palindrome. Knowing this, one realizes that while each verse of the piece can be somewhat long, the musical content is actually minimal. One could notate the music fully, actually writing out the retrogrades for each voice, but this is unnecessary. All one really needs to realize this music is what Machaut has originally provided or what I have provided in my own transcription in the linked video or found here.

Take note that in my transcription the text of those lines which are sung in retrograde are also written syllabically in retrograde.

French Text:

A. Ma fin est mon commencement

B. Et mon commencement ma fin.

a. Et ceneure vraiement

A. Ma fin est mon commencement.

a. Mes tiers chans trois fois seulement

b. Se retrograde et einse fin.

A. Ma fin est mon commencement

B. Et mon commencement ma fin.


English Translation:

A. My end is my beginning

B. And my beginning my end

a. And this holds truly,

A. My end is my beginning

a. My third melody three times only

b. Reverses itself and thus ends.

A. My end is my beginning

B. And my beginning my end.


Paris, Bibliothèque national de France MS A fonds fr. 1584. 479v-480r

Paris, Bibliothèque national de France MS E fonds fr. 9221. 135v-136r

Paris, Bibliothèque national de France MS G fonds fr. 22546. 153r

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- Jordan Alexander Key -

Composer, Musicologist, Organist, Bagpiper




Copyright © 2020 by Jordan Alexander Key