Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Machaut Kyrie


“But out came the music as the kingfisher flashes from its nest of stinking fishbones.”

During the 1920s, Sylvia Townsend Warner, known as an expert in early forms of music notation (and as an amateur composer and musician),  joined a committee that researched and edited music of the 16th and 17th centuries. The results of her work were seen in 1929 with the publication by Oxford University Press of a ten volume edition of Tudor Church Music.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that music appears from time to time in Warner’s  fictional work. But what is unexpected, is that, in a beguiling novel published in 1948, she should make reference to music that, at the time, would have been even more esoteric than the music of the English Renaissance that she made her particular study.

There is a passage in that novel, The Corner That Held Them, that has haunted me since first reading it more than 20 years ago. Its haunting aspects are not restricted to a reference to obscure (for the time of writing) pieces of music, as you’ll see.

A short preamble is needed before I quote the passage, just to set the scene.  We are in 14th century East Anglia, and Warner introduces us to Henry Yellowlees, a “clerk in lesser orders”, describing him as “a short man with a snub nose and green eyes that were staring and sorrowful like those of a hungry cat”. Yellowlees is sent, by his bishop, on a number of missions. During the dispatch of one of his duties he puts up over night in a run-down and very dirty leper-house. The chaplain of the leper-house asks Henry whether he can read music. It turns out that the chaplain is a keen musician, and eager to try out some new music – in the style, he says, of the Ars Nova – that has come his way. The two men, accordingly, sing through Triste loysir and other music in the chaplain’s book. Henry is at first baffled, but soon mightily intrigued by this strange new music. After a while, and we sense that he has been preparing for this all along, the chaplain asks his guest whether he would object to being joined by one of “my lepers”, the man in question being a skilled singer. A third voice would enable them to perform the Kyrie by Guillame de Machaut. This passage follows:

                Shuffling footsteps approached. The leper came in. In the dusk of the doorway he seemed to glimmer like bad fish. He stank, too. He stationed himself at the further end of the room; it was clear he knew his place as a dog does. There he stood, rubbing his scaly hands together, drawing preparatory breaths. His expression was professionally calm.

                “Now, John! The Machault [sic] Kyrie.”

                The three voices sprang into the air.

                If Triste loysir had seemed a foretaste of paradise, the Kyrie was paradise itself. This was how the blessed might sing, singing in a duple measure that ran as nimbly on its four feet as a weasel running through a meadow, with each voice in turn enkindling the others, so that the music flowed on and was continually renewed. And as paradise is made for man, this music seemed made for man’s singing; not for edification, or the working-out of an argument, or the display of skill, but only for ease and pleasure, as in paradise where the abolition of sin begets a pagan carelessness, where the certainty of Christ’s countenance frees men’s souls from the obligation of Christian behaviour, the creaking counterpoint of God’s law and man’s obedience.

                It ended. Henry Yellowlees raised his eyes from the music-book. The rays of the levelling sun had shifted while they sang and now shone full on the leper. His face, his high bald head, were scarlet. He seemed to be on fire.

                “Again! Let us sing it again!”

                “I told you so,” said the chaplain. “I tell you there has never been such music in the world before.”

                All through the evening they sang, the leper standing apart and singing by rote. And Henry thought how many an hour these two must have spent together, the leper at one end of the room, the chaplain at the other; or perhaps they bent over the same music-book, their love of music overcoming the barrier between life and death-in-life […] Most of the night Henry lay awake, recalling the music, humming it over again to the burden of the chaplain’s snores, with half of his mind in a rapture and the other half wishing that there were not so many and such ferocious [bed] bugs.

When I first became interest in “serious” music as a teenager in the late 1970s, there was a thriving early music “scene” and there were opportunities to hear (in broadcasts, on recordings and, if you were geographically favoured, in concert) performances of pre-Renaissance music. The names of the pioneers such as Alfred Deller and David Munrow were well-known, and musicians such as Emma Kirkby and Christopher Page were gaining devotees. Debates (often acrimonious) about the merits and validity of “historically informed” approaches to music performance were commonplace in the media. And, of course, the names of composers of early music became known to a more general public, chief among them, perhaps, Hildegard of Bingen, Perotin and of course Guillaume de Machaut.

When Sylvia Townsend Warner was writing The Corner That Held Them, however, there would have been few opportunities to hear the music of Machaut. Even the Renaissance music that Warner studied would have been a rarity, though of course, the religious music was being  kept alive by England’s many excellent cathedral, church and collegiate choirs. Alfred Deller, for example, formed his Deller Consort only in 1950 (some sources say 1948, coincidentally the year of publication of The Corner That Held Them) and even then, would have concentrated more on “authentic” performances of baroque and Renaissance music than on the music of the preceding centuries*.

I wonder, then, whether Warner had heard the Machaut Kyrie (which is part of his Messe de Nostre Dame) when she wrote about it in the late 1940s. It’s not impossible. It is, though, far more likely that she knew of the piece (and perhaps has seen it is score form) but had not heard it. Scholar that she was, she would have known that the music of the so-called Ars Nova would have been making its way from the great cities of Europe into the lesser byways of rural England, and that the new approaches to harmony (often surprisingly dissonant) and rhythm (complex, contrapuntal) would have seemed alien to those encountering it for the first time. And music lover that she was, she clearly needed to include music as part of her evocation of 14th century clerical life.

If Warner had heard the Machaut Mass, however, she was remembering it imperfectly. She states that the piece requires three, rather than four, voices, though I suspect that this was mere licence (how would she contrive to get four singers into that leper-house?) and she refers to duple time, whereas the Kyrie is in triple time.  And that image of the “weasel running through a meadow” is charming without doubt, but does it really conjure up Machaut’s music? You can judge for yourself here.

My guess, then, is that Warner had not heard the piece she discussed, but had seen it in score form some time before (probably in a rare manuscript in a college library somewhere).  I hate to seem critical, though.  Warner’s prose is such a source of pleasure, and I was delighted to encounter a reference to Machaut in any novel, let along one from the 1940s. And that melancholy scene of the three music lovers coming together to wonder at this gorgeous new music I find exceptionally affecting.

Above all, though, we must thank the scholars (such as Warner) who, through the 20th century did so much to bring whole bodies of neglected music to public attention. By the 1970s even England’s most famous tenor was performing early music. In 1977 Sylvia wrote to her friend William Maxwell, of attending a recital at Aldeburgh in which Peter Pears read some of her poems, “so beautifully that I forgot to be constrained and sat enjoying them”. She goes on to say that the “finest part of the programme was when [Pears] and t’other tenor … leaped back over six centuries & sang two a cappella pieces by Machaut. You remember what I said about Machaut in The Corner That Held Them.

I’m certain that, had Maxwell read what Sylvia had written, he would not have forgotten it. That would be quite impossible. As Henry Yellowlees mused some days after his experiences in the leper-house:

“I could be happy living like that … nursing the music book among the mutton bones, having forsaken this world to live in the fifth dimension of sound … Ah, that Kyrie, and the rondeau they had sung after it, and the song with the bass part descending with iron tread at mors de moy! Such music, and such squalor! … never had he seen a house so dirty, or slept in a more tattered bed. But out came the music as the kingfisher flashes from its nest of stinking fishbones.”

*The Deller Consort finally got around to making a highly enjoyable recording of the Machaut Mass in the early 1960s, in which the voices are augmented by “original” instruments; an approach to performance now considered to be incorrect by most experts. How times change.

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3 comments on “Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Machaut Kyrie
  1. Kate Maxwell says:

    Thank you for information on Warner, a figure I had not heard of. A note on the mass – if you want to ‘excuse’ her for the 3-voice ‘mistake’, then take into account the fact that the contratenor part was considered, if not exactly ‘optional’, then the least important of the four. In other words, if only three singers were available for a medieval 4v piece, then a performance could (usually) be made without the CT – or at least that’s what many scholars presumed, though recent work by Jared Hartt on Machaut shows that he is a special case in that regard. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s book on the Machaut mass can tell you more on the role of the CT in that work. Nevertheless, Warner was writing decades before these, and thus the prevailing position may well have been that the CT was ‘optional’ – particularly if, as you say, bringing in a fourth voice would be unhelpful in the narrative context. Just a thought for you!

  2. G.H.Bone says:

    Thank you, Kate! I have a copy of Daniel L-W’s book but haven’t looked into it for many years. I must see what he says about the contratenor part. But thanks for that insight into the scholarly thinking. As for Sylvia Townsend Warner, she is, quite aside from her interest in music, an extraordinary and original writer, and ridiculously underrated. All her novels are worth reading, and she was a exceptional short story writer (she published over may years in the New Yorker – as a consequence, she is probably better known in the USA than in her native UK). The collection of autobiographical short stories that appeared shortly after her dear “Scenes of Childhood and other stories” is an utter delight.

  3. […] writing about Sylvia Townsend Warner’s description of the Machaut mass in her novel The Corner That Held Them, I remarked that, at the time Warner was writing – the […]

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