We have no precise knowledge of Guillaume de Machaut's early years. He was probably born around 1300 in the diocese of Rheims in Champagne and he may have spent some time studying in Paris where, since the 13th century, the most sophisticated musical theories had been elaborated. A papal bull of Benedict XII dated 1335 states that for about twelve years Guillaume had been the almoner (clericus elimosinarius), secretary and familiar of John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia whom he accompanied on his expeditions throughout Europe. This great feudal lord, King of Bohemia and stalwart and inalienable ally of the royal house of France, travelled the length and breadth of Europe in pursuit of his various military and political campaigns, and his secretary followed faithfully at his side throughout these often turbulent peregrinations.
Machaut lived more like a trouvère than a cleric, traveling widely with and for his patrons (perhaps as far as Poland and Lithuania) and writing his poetry and music on command for courtly occasions. This of course explains the paucity of religious music in his output. Machaut was equally esteemed as both poet and musician during his lifetime; in fact, three-quarters of his surviving work is unaccompanied poetry, full of structural intricacies and love for anagram and other fiddles. His works were eagerly sought out by kings and nobles in France and elsewhere.
In 1340 Machaut decided, however, without leaving the employ of his patron, to retire to Rheims as a canon of the cathedral, where he led the sedentary life of a tonsured cleric. Yet he did not entirely forego or reject the world. After the heroic death of John of Luxembourg - who had become blind - at the battle of Crécy in 1346, Machaut cultivated the relationships that bound him to the higher reaches of the nobility and to the royal family of France. For the refined 'knights, ladies and maidens/ Whose hands are beautiful, rounded and shapely' (Dit de la Harpe, 255-256), Machaut composed all abundance of poems. The future king Charles V even paid him a visit at home in 1361.
Near the end of his life, his output was copied, at the request of his illustrious patrons and admirers, into a set of manuscripts beautifully written in calligraphic script and richly illuminated. The author himself seems to have supervised their preparation and production, since all the pieces are meticulously ordered: the narrative poems or dits, which are purely literary, come before the compositions in Lyric style and the sacred works (the Mass and Latin motets). Only a part of the writings in lyric style (consisting of lais, ballades, rondeaux, virelais, as they are ordered in the manuscripts) is set to music. In Machaut's case, the poet ultimately takes precedence over the musician.
Up to the time of Machaut polyphonic music was generally what has been termed "constructive" in design, Composers wrote the music literally from the bottom up, with a chant or some other melody (preexistent or newly composed) serving as the foundation. Polyphony was number made audible: This abstract approach to music manifested itself in the mathematical basis of consonance and dissonance, in the isorhythmic principle, in the stratification of rhythmic layers, and in the multiple texts of motets.
But there existed another possibility: polyphony where melody, not rhythm, dominated. In monophonic music, which consists of just a single line, melody always dominates; but Machaut, like Adam de la Halle before him, enlarged trouvère monody to create polyphonic pieces which were in essence accompanied song. The expressive setting of a single text was still the foremost consideration; now, however, accompanimental parts were not improvised, but fully written out.
Guillaume de Machaut's Mass is probably the best known work of medieval music. It bears the seal of an epoch, the 14th century, as well as that of a man who was a poet, a diplomat, a canon and a composer.