This polyphonic mass, composed circa 1365, holds a place in the cannon of polyphonic sacred music. The work is of significant importance because it is the earliest known polyphonic mass by a single composer. The earlier Tournai Mass is the earliest known polyphonic mass, however, it is a collection of movements by various composers of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Messe de Nostre Dame is Machaut’s only setting of the complete Mass.
Structurally, the work is divided into six sections, each of which represent a portion of the Mass Ordinary. A typical mass composition for the following two centuries would include the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Machaut also includes the dismissal, Ite missa est.
The mass is isorhythmic in nature, and four of the six movements use existing chant melodies within a given isorhythmic structure. However, the Gloria and Credo bear no evidence of any know pre-existing chant melody. Multiple movements, such as the Ite missa est, show a high level of symmetry when examined rhythmically. The ita missa est contains 2 talea groups that are alternated in a symmetrical pattern throughout the movement. This level of symmetry does not apply to melodic ideas (color). The work appears to have no shared melodic ideas across the movements.
The mass is clearly a precursor to the cyclic masses by later composers such as Josquin Des Prez, but whether it is cyclic itself is still debated by musicologists. Messe de Nostre Dame differs from the later cyclic masses in a few ways.
1. The work uses two modes, one for the first half of the mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo) and another for the second half (Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Ite missa est).
2. As previously mentioned, the mass does not share melodic ideas between movement and Machaut does not employ the technique of Parody.
3. No evidence shows that Machaut conceived the mass as one body of work. The movements could have been placed together at a later date.
Gombosi, Otto. "Machaut's "Messe Nostre-Dame"." The Musical Quarterly. no. 2 (1950): 204-224. http://www.jstor.org/stable/739816.
Keitel, Elizabeth. "The So-Called Cyclic Mass of Guillaume de Machaut: New Evidence for an Old Debate." The Musical Quarterly. no. 3 (1982): 307-323. http://www.jstor.org/stable/742003.
Wulf Arlt. "Machaut, Guillaume de." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/51865.