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Old wine in new bottles – 21st-century Machaut

April 26, 2013

This is a little piece I wrote on a whim.

poemI needed something very short to round out a programme of music based on poetry, for flute and piano.  All the best ideas were too long – I only really had 3 or 4 minutes to play with.  I thought it might be interesting to take a song of Guillaume de Machaut, the great 14th-century French poet and composer, who wrote both words and music for his songs.  Many of them are polyphonic, in 2, 3 or more parts, but the one I decided on in the end is a monody: some modern recordings add a drone, while others sing the melody completely unaccompanied.  Part of the beauty of the line comes from the delicate shifts of accent, as well as the elegant twists and turns of the melody, which at times has an almost arabesque quality.

The modern flute is not all that much like the instruments of Machaut’s time, and the modern Steinway still less so: this helped me, because I wanted to present the melody refracted through a vastly different, twenty-first-century sensibility.  I set it twice: first half-hidden in the piano, beneath gentle swirls and strands of languid counter-melody in the flute, and then plain and up-front, offset by crystalline chimes.

The premiere will be given by Sara Minelli and Roderick Chadwick at a concert in Cambridge, given in honour of a visit from the great French poet Yves Bonnefoy next month.

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