Machaut's Mass was certainly a landmark in musical history, but this Mass is far from being avant-garde merely for the sake of uniquity, it is considered to be one of the most advanced examples of choral polyphony in the history of music. Here, this mass is candidly assessed without the knowledge-enriched air of a regular music essay, but spiced up with a thrilling element of ignorant music student pretention.
TIMBREthe pure tones of two tenor parts and two male alto falsetto voices are one of the more conventional elements of the mass, the timbres produced by male voices in such a range is nearly neutral, and serve to emphasise harmonic elements of the piece, instead of interfering with it. Vocal timbre also exploits the acoustics of a cathedral, the common venue for performances of this mass, particularly the enveloping reverberation, that neutralises the timbre further. Of particular interest is the use of lengthy melismas in the throughout the mass, particularly in the Kyrie. In the Kyrie, most melismas near a minute in length, drawing the duration of the movement out to 8 minutes, the longest in the mass, where the volume of words is actually less than any other movement. This, again, neutralises the timbre, where articulation as required by singing words may interfere somewhat with the harmonic palette. Timbre does not change throughout the Mass, as vocal settings do not involve a change in instruments, and tone of voice is not altered throughout, as this was not conventional, as the voice was the most effective instrument for the cathedral acoustics at the time. Mood and aura can still be altered despite the consistency of timbre. Since even before Machaut's time, Mass settings would be always performed solely by voice, and only until the development of the pipe organ did the concept of instrumental accompaniment to the consistent vocal timbre.
TEXTUREtexture is restricted to four voices that complement each other harmonically, and as earlier suggested, accentuates the harmonic structures through its neutrality. This form of Mass setting, of polyphony versus unison or organum had come to rise only in 14th century, though its development has its roots in gregorian chant and organum. Polyphony was a natural progression from the simpler organum, though at first each part was written by different people. Machaut composed all parts. Of interest, is the use of vocal parts who's ranges are simlar to each othber, two alto parts and two tenor/baritone parts, that almost crowd each other. The modern setting of the Mass would be much more spaced, using an upper voice in addition, however the cause of this could be the patriarchal nature of Medieval society, thus removing a soprano part, and the low quality of boy singers, eliminating the treble part. However, perhaps the crowding of the textures does give a feeling of sparsity, where the space is nearly as important as the music itself
DYNAMICS/EXPRESSIVE TECHNIQUESAgain, there seems to be a lack of variation in this facet, possibly due to the lack of dynamic or expressive scope capable in a four-voice ensemble, or simply because Machaut did not intend for there to be dynamic varation, according to what the Ars Nova may have been intended for. There are no markings for dynamics in the score, and one could either chose to perform the piece without dynamic variation, or to edit in their own dynamic contours. Perhaps this makes more sense in a 14th century context, and within the acoustics that this mass would be sung in. But when listening to this mass, if it weren't for the juicy harmonies, it is easy to see how it may be boring, as there is little variation in dynamics during the entire duration of the mass. However, at least within the movements, different volumes of text needed to be sung gives way for more variation in expression, to accomodate for a sparsity of syllables to sing, or a large amount of syllables to sing. Where the Kyrie is homogeneous in texture, without much need for articulation and with a consistent dynamic for all 8 of its minutes, besides some welcome off-beat rhythmic deviation in the first Kyrie, the Gloria, with a vastly greater number of words and a shorter running time, is given a lighter treatment, with the exception of the 2-page 'Amen' melisma at its end. In general, most probably because of convention, or, in dynamics' case, to further emphasise the harmonic qualities of the music through neutrality, expressive techniques seem to be more up to the performer than the composer, and dynamic variation is non-existent.
DURATIONThere is thankfully more to be spoken about in this facet than of dynamics and expressive techniques, there definitely seems to be more emphasis on tempo, rhythm and meter than on other elements in the Ars Nova notation system, this being an in-built mechanism of the system, moving from simpler, more rigid rhythmic modes of the 13th century, to more complex systems of rhythmic layering that work with polyphony. Of course, in terms of rhythm polyphony is utilised in several different ways. Where most movements see the use of rhythmic texturing, and a lack of rhythmic unity that complement each other quite well, the Gloria and Credo sees for the most part unified rhythm. Tempos change as appropriate to movement, though most tempos are of a moderate speed. Meters alternate, often either in a cut 3 or a 4/4, when translated into modern notation, though the Ars Nova did have a lot of influence on how meter was applied.
STRUCTUREStructurally, this piece cements the Mass setting, musically, (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, ite missa est), that is still used today, with the exception of the 'ite missa est'. In terms of the repetition of sections, particularly in the Kyrie, is simply as a part of the normal structure of the Kyrie text: where 'kyrie eleison' is said three times, then 'christe eleison' is said three time, and finally 'kyrie eleison' is said another three times.
PITCHThis is perhaps is the element of music that is given the greatest emphasis in the construction of the mass, and it where most ground is broke in this piece. The way each part is used to complement each other through harmonic elements is well advanced anything else of the time, or even until the 16th century. Machaut utilised one of the 12 modes available in Ars Nova, which, to Western ears, sounds Medieval, yet at the same time, the progressions are similar to what more modern classical music would have utilised, and certainly seems a little more volatile, and less cliched. However, the modes used are quite similar to more modern scales, and barring unusual sounding cadences, parallel fifths and the like in some sections (i.e. the final cadence in the Kyrie), sounds more advanced in its usage of dissonance and consonance than even high Renaissance music. Machaut utilises opportunities presented by polyphony better than anyone else of his time; extremely rich harmonically, yet a minimal tone is achieved, though the spacial crowding of vocal ranges. Certainly the space one hears, tonally, around the voices themselves serves to heighten mood, and to emphasise the harmonies and layering again.