Douce Dame Jolie: Machaut’s ghostly music of love and death



Douce Dame Jolie was composed in the C14th by Guillaume de Machaut who lived between 1300 and 1377 around the area of Rheims in France. It follows the conventions of the ‘Ars Nova’ style which flourished in France and the Low Countries during the C14th and the structure of a ‘virelai’, a verse of three stanzas with a repeated refrain before the first and after each subsequent stanza.

Machaut was a master of this form and Douce Dame is probably the best known and most performed of his virelai pieces. Many contemporary performers continue to sing versions of the song with different tempi and voice styles but it remains consistently haunting and intoxicating to the ear.

The virelai was one of the three ‘Formes Fixes’, along with the ballade and rondeau which were popular in the C13th – C15th and together with motets and lais formed the basis of secular musical verse during this period. The virelai changed in the C15th though, losing it’s musical accompaniment and turning into a purely literary form of poetic expression.

Machaut’s work follows the earlier virelai compositions of Jehannot de l’ Escurel (c. 1304) who was a transitional figure between the ‘Trouvere’ style of the troubadors and the Ars Nova and the later work of Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474).


Machaut composing

It is hardly surprising that Douce Dame has remained so well-known and loved over the centuries because the particular combination of music and words has a addictive quality which seems to get inside your head and revolve around and around; as beguiling as the imagined lady of the piece who destroys the poets equilibrium and causes him such anguish.

There is a strong rhythmical structure to the virelai form which lends itself to the expression of longing and reiterated complaints of unrequited love. The words are short and evenly balanced, almost conversational but the musical momentum of the piece drives them on in an unrelenting torrent towards an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu, ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.
Qu’adès sans tricherie
Vous ay et humblement
Tous les jours de ma vie
Sans villain pensement.
Helas! et je mendie
D’esperance et d’aïe;
Dont ma joie est fenie,
Se pité ne vous en prent.
Mais vo douce maistrie
Mon cuer si durement
Qu’elle le contralie
Et lie
En amour tellement
Qu’il n’a de riens envie
Fors d’estre en vo baillie;
Et se ne li ottrie
Vos cuers nul aligement.
(instrumental followed by first stanza repetition)
Et quant ma maladie
Ne sera nullement
Sans vous, douce anemie,
Qui lie
Estes de mon tourment,
A jointes mains deprie
Vo cuer, puis qu’il m’oublie,
Que temprement m’ocie,
Car trop langui longuement.
(Douce Dame Dame…)
It’s the kind of song that you hear once and want to repeat immediately and then find yourself singing snatches of in the middle of the night! It has an obsessive quality about it. You want it to stop, to take a breath and step back but it whirls you around again til you lose balance and start to feel disorientated. This is, of course, a masterly conceit by Machaut. He wants to draw you in to the poetic world of the song and once he has hooked you with a the catchy tune then he tightens his grip until you experience an echo of the poet’s dis-ease and entrapment.
machaut poesies

Sweet, beautiful lady
For God’s sake, do not think
That anyone rules over me
But you alone
(The first phrase introduces the beautiful, remote object of adoration, the conventions of courtly love are established and the faint echoes of the Marian cult of the C12th which did so much to influence the troubadors. You imagine the beloved; cold and clear and remotely untouchable as a statue of the Virgin.)
For endlessly, and without treachery
I have cherished you
And humbly
All the days of my life
I have served you
With no unworthy thought
(Upward key change and repetition on ‘treachery’ and ‘cherished’ are very beguiling and sensuous but they are balanced by the purity of his long service and adoration. He is a true and honourable lover.)
Alas! and I beg
For hope and aid
For my joy is ended
If you do not take pity
(He poet laments and sighs with the pangs of love as the pace of the music begins to take hold of the listener. You sense the poet’s breathing and heart rate increasing as he warms to his subject.)
But your sweet mastery
My heart so harshly
That it torments
And binds it
So much in love
(The lift on ‘mastery and echo in ‘masters’ reinforces the desperation of the poet’s feelings. He is mastered and unmade by the power of her hold over him both in body and soul. His emotions bind him to the sweet lady but she treats his heart harshly with distain and remains unmoved.)
That it desires nothing
But to be in your service
And yet your heart
Grants it no relief
(Again, the tempo of the music and circular motion of the melody assist the impression of being caught up in something that the poet is incapable of breaking free from. The listener is caught up too and there is no relief in the relentlessness of the music.)
And since my sickness
Will never be healed
Without you, sweet enemy
Who is glad
At my torment
(The beloved becomes a sickness, an adversary who is aware of the torment they cause but offers no respite or relief.)
I join my hands and pray
To your heart, since it forgets me
That it should kill me quickly
For I languish too long

(The poet finally asks for the ‘coup de grace’ in order to be freed from his suffering. The listener also needs to break off and take a breath by this point but has already become infected with the poet’s malady and longs to return to hear more.)

The imagery conjures up the vision of a battlefield where the poet has been mortally wounded by love and requires the ‘misericorde’, the quick stab by the thin blade which dispatches the knight from his sufferings. There is no hope of recovery so he requests an honourable end from his enemy.


There is also a sense of fever and delirium in the song. Machaut’s lifespan encompassed the terrors of the ‘great mortality’ otherwise known as the Black Death which changed the face of Europe forever and also had profound effects on all forms of artistic expression. Life had been precarious and beautiful and heart-breaking before but something about the scale and speed and random cruelty of the Black Death touched the very soul of humanity during the C14th.

On the one hand people looked for answers in order to make sense of the enormity of the destruction and turned to religion and penitence in the hopes of calling off God’s wrath and on the other hand artists and musicians cherished every fleeting moment of youth and beauty and every fragile thing which symbolised hope and life as an antidote to the terror and misery and ugliness of the disease.

Machaut’s work seems to me to reflect aspects of both responses. Love and beauty are cruel and distant and unmoved by human suffering yet they are also pure and clear and something to cling on to in the face of decay and death.

The Dance Macabre became a potent symbol in art of the relentlessness of the plague. Grinning cadavers catch hold of the hands in a vice-like grip, twirling their victims around and around as they drag them down into the waiting pits. The same suggestion of a never-ending, pitiless tempo runs through the song. The poet is caught up in a dance of love that he fears will kill him but he is unable to break free. There is a feverishness and sense of rising panic in the lyrics until he finely begs for a quick death to release him. His lady’s grip on his heart is merciless and fatal.


Another aspect of the lyrics of Douce Dame relates to constancy and devoted service. This derives from the traditions of courtly love and the troubadors where feudal obligations between men were mirrored in service and unquestioning loyalty to an unobtainable lady. The poets of the Occitaine region usually sang and composed for the courts of great lords and ladies and the troubadors were often drawn from aristocratic circles themselves. Status was a feature of courtly love because the lady was literally elevated above the poet by her social status as well as by her untouchability. She was raised up on a dais or surrounded by her women; the consort of a powerful liege lord, was removed from the everyday world and her attributes became symbolic of a mystical femininity unknowable to the male observer.

Although courtly love had altered by the time of Machaut, his music and lyrics echo that long tradition of setting the beloved on a pedestal and adoring them from afar. The song is the poet’s attempt to make his feeling understood and speak openly about the secret passion that he has carried for many years. The listener knows that if his love was ever reciprocated it would lose it’s piquancy. The ‘coup de grace’ must never be delivered or the ecstacy of the song would be diminished.

courtly love

Love’s arrow pierces the flesh of the lover while the lady looks on

The world of the poet’s love must exist in a place out of time, untouched by reality and decay, unchanged by the temporal concerns of survival and reproduction and death but rather always fixed and eternal. This reflects a quasi-religious quality in secular medieval music which goes to the core of the sentiments being expressed. Just as the mass was an aural expression of the presence of the divine on Earth, so secular music like this piece, reflected an aural contemplation of perfection and timelessness.

Machaut also wrote many pieces of sacred music including his famous Messe de Notre Dame, Mass for our Lady, the first mass which can be attributed to one composer. Divine love and secular love brought together by the same composer and expressed through the vehicle of music.

Music as meditation and re-iteration of eternal truths about beauty of form and balance and unchangeable purity. You can hear this in the sounds of Douce Dame just as you do in Hildegaarde of Bingen or Gregorian chant. It inhabits the same mind-space and touches the same aesthetic regions of the soul despite being grounded in cat gut and wood and human vocal chords and even through the lens of so many centuries it reaches out to us with a message of longing and shared humanity which speaks to something deep inside ourselves.


2 Responses to “Douce Dame Jolie: Machaut’s ghostly music of love and death”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


  2. aeolianmuse39 Says:

    Reblogged this on aeolianmuse39 and commented:
    A haunting medieval song about courtly love and death. Love it.


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