Saturday, June 12, 2010


We enter the sonic labyrinth by passing through a work created in the fourteenth century by one of the first composers of classical music who transmitted his personality in biography, allegory, music and other writings. Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377) was a blogger in an age that had not yet harnessed electricity.

The work is a Rondeau called “Ma fin est mon commencement (My end is my beginning).” There is a good recording by the Orlando Consort (track 13) upon which the section timings listed below are based:

Ma fin est mon commencement (My end is my beginning) [A:0:00]
Et mon commencement ma fin (And my beginning my end) [B:0:48]
Est teneure vraiement (And true tenor) [A: 1:33]

Ma fin est mon commencement. (My end is my beginning) [A:2:18]
Mes tiers chans trois fois seulement (My third part three times only) [A:3:04]
Se retrograde et einsi fin. (Moves backwards and so ends) [B:3:50]

Ma fin est mon commencement (My end is my beginning) [A:4:38]
Et mon commencement ma fin. (And my beginning my end.) [B:5:25]
Each line of text is set as a complete musical section and there are two different sections of music, marked A or B in the square brackets above. One must learn to hear the dance of pattern within tercets, the first three lines [ABA] followed in the second tercet by [AAB] with the sectional sequence of the second and third lines reversed. The pattern challenges our ability to hear and simultaneously concentrate on direction: this is a sonic labyrinth.

You may find the words hard to follow. Machaut loved them, so he wanted to hold on to them in the music. This melismatic style is a way to love words by extending them but it also makes them harder to understand; more like emotions than discourse.

The setting of the text “My End is my Beginning” is musically literal. The A section of one voice is created by playing the B section of another voice backwards. Because of this the music that sounds at the opening is literally the ending and beginning simultaneously.

What about the third voice? And what is the text of the second tercet about?

The second tercet is a song text about the construction of the song, like a house singing about its own architecture. The “third part” is written in only one section. To complete the B section for the third part, one must read it backwards—returning to the beginning. Reversal is another way the end could become the beginning. The third part is only played backward during the B section and there are three B sections played during the eight lines of text. Since the final section is a B section it “ends” there:

“My third part three times only, moves backwards and so ends.”

This music sounds the impossible: moving back in time while moving forward in time. That was the foundation for contemplation by a master who survived the black-death. And yet Machaut spun a lighthearted maze: this is not music that is fearful or dramatic. Cut in sharp angles and elusive patterns it nonetheless remains friendly and relaxed. May this music remain a companion as we continue into the labyrinth.


  1. Reinhold Niebuhr called love an 'impossible possibility.' This fourteenth century blogger gets at something similar to invite us into a labyrinth, beginning and end, where passion overcomes death.

  2. Fascinating piece, Dr. Johnson! All of the small intricacies and complexities of a piece such as this are things that I believe are lacking in some of today's music.

  3. Very interesting in learning this. Good to know its origin. It is/was used as a folkloric tune in Brazil and one can adjust the words to any situation desired. Mockery mostly. Now, on to the "Frere Jacques" on the 1st symphony, please...


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