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Home > Free Essays & Book Reports > Music > Motet Music

Motet Music

The genesis of the motet is, like the biblical birth of Eve, a matter of appendage. In the case of Eve, a rib was removed from Adam and fashioned into a women; the motet was a rib added to pre-existing clausulae. James C. Thomson describes this development as follows: “In the thirteenth century, perhaps sooner, it became the practice to add a new text to the upper voice of a clausula. The newly worded, was then called motetus.” (Thomson, 56) Despite its somewhat haphazard birth, the form was widely accepted. Grout describes its popularity as: “Thousands of motets were written in the thirteenth century; the style spread from Paris throughout France and to all parts of western Europe.” (Grout, 99) Originality was not a hallmark of the thirteenth century motet. In fact, of the two essential characteristics of the motet, one was that “it was constructed on a cantus firmus, some pre-existent melody…” (Thomson, 57) The other was that it had at least two different texts. As Grout points out, “the stock of motet melodies, both tenors and upper parts, lay in the public domain; composers and performers freely helped themselves to the music of their predecessors without acknowledgment and altered it without notice.” (Grout, 99) A unique characteristic of the motet of this period is the mixing of melodies and rhythms. Alfred Einstein described this technique as: “This may be called polymelody, the compulsory combination of the two or more distinct melodies with different rhythms…” (Einstein, 26) With the acceptance of such combinations came the development of stranger mixtures. Side by side with a sacred liturgical text appeared secular texts of sometimes outrageous contrast. The mixture of sacred and secular text was a result of the fact that less and less notice was taken of the connection between the texts of the tenor and duplum. Einstein theorized this development was arbitrary, however most belief the music is premised on an, “internal perception” (Bukofzer, 28) and to the musician, “to them a detail was a value in itself.” (Mathiassen, 70) The motet blended the different planes of music. An additional development in the technique of mixing and adding is that not only was it polyphonic, polyrythmic, and polytextual, but music was now polyglot: “one or more vernacular (French) texts might be substituted for Latin ones.” (Thomson, 57) During this time, composers of the Notre Dame School concerned themselves with the development of clausulae in “rhythmically identical patterns.” (Harman, 53) Harman writes: “This was not only the culmination of the Notre Dame preoccupation with rhythm, but was also a very important innovation, because it eventually developed into the chief structural device of the fourteenth century motet.” (Harman, 53) The structural device alluded to above, goes under name of “isorhythm”, (same rhythm). At first, this concept of single rhythm was applied solely to the tenor part, but gradually the principle was applied to the other parts. Creating a greater unity and sense of whole to the listener. Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) “was a master of the isorythmic motet.” (Thomson, 59) It was he who pioneered the application of the principle to the other parts. He and Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-c.1377), whose “claim that the ear should be used to check a completed composition was the first indication that the combination of the given melodies… was beginning to yield to a freer, more individual attitude towards creative art.” (Einstein, 34) Machaut was the most prominent practitioner of the strophic motet and preferred the use of French text. (Saide, 625) The fourteenth century also witnessed a change in attitude toward text. The polytextual thirteenth-century motet was replaced by the fourteenth-century forms, which typically had a single text, treated either as a solo (the French ballad) or distributed between the voices in such a way as to keep the words always clearly understandable. (Grout, 157) The development of the motet from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries can be characterized as a gradual turning away from the abstract, nonsensuous principles of construction toward pleasure of sounds for their own sake, and toward a clarity of structure immediately apparent from the music itself, without reference to esoteric meanings. (Grout, 157) Many of the motets written during the fourteenth century were constructed in a fashion that has come to be called isoperiodic. In these the phrases were normally kept at the same length but were laid out so as to produce overlaps between the various voices. (Saide, 625) Up until the fifteenth century, the principle of cantus firmus, or pre-existent melody use, was rigidly adhered to. The fifteenth century ushers in major changes to the motet. The first half of the fifteenth century was a period of transition and transformation in the history of the motet. While, in conservative France, the style of the motet is “still based on a cantus firmus and still polytextual.” (Thomson, 87) In Italian motets of the same period, although there are some with isorhythm, new features are discernible. Many were freely composed, not being based on any pre-existent melody. In England, “liturgical motets were written in which all the parts were newly composed…” (Harman, 189) John Dunstable’s Quam pulchra es, demonstrates a “more freely composed polyphony, totally independent of any pre-existing melody.” (Thomson, 88) In general, the motets of the fifteenth were “less subjective and more popular in character than that of the fourteenth century.”(Einstein 39) The late fifteenth century, with the next generation of composers, the motet built on a tenor cantus firmus once again became an important stylistic type. Of Johannes Regis eight motets written in this period, all but one is of this style. Regis increased the potential sonority of his works by adding four additional voices around the tenor. All five voices usually simultaneously engaged only at the culmination of a section. (Saide, 630) With the sixteenth century came a new style, epitomized by the works of Josqin Des Perez. His Ave Maria, illustrates his style and characteristics contained in his music. “Each phrase of text has its own musical motive, which is first presented in imitation by each voice in turn; the musical sentence thus indicated comes eventually to a cadence, and a similar sentence, on the next phrase of the text and with its own musical motive, begins.”(Grout, 199) Josquin’s greatest contribution to the development of the motet was his “use of pervading imitation as a unifying device..”(Harman, 202) This he accomplished primarily through the contrasting of pairs of voices. In addition, he divided his work “into large sections, set off by simultaneous cadencing of all voices and by the introduction of changes in meter and tempo.”(Grout, 199) Motets composed by Josquin were “his most significant contributions to the style we call Netherlandish…”(Thomson, 105) In addition to this style, the sixteenth century motet is noted for many settings for Psalms, rare until the early sixteenth century, and “motets in this generation were often much longer than previously, so they were divided into partes, or sections, frequently contrasting with each other.”(Thomson, 105) Finally, associated with the Netherlanders is the so-called drive to the cadence, a thickening of the texture of the piece by employing all of the voices during the final measures. This created an exciting finish. In Germany, with the Lutheran split, came a gradual development of the so-called choral motet. This was an idea “to use the traditional melodies as the basic material for free artistic creation, to which they added individual interpretation and pictorial details.”(Grout, 257) In Italy, specifically in Venice, the motet form was applied to divided choirs. Divided choirs have long since been used as the parallel structure of Psalm verses and also to vary the presentation of the plain chant. To fully appreciate the application of divided choirs at St. Marks in Venice, a description of the site was described as: “St. Marks is…extremely rich in material and decoration partly because by law every merchant who traded in the East was required to bring back some material adornment to add to its treasure… the services at St. Marks mirrored the glory of the state and were resplendent with ornate, elaborate processions and ritual pageantry.”(Thomson, 129) Under the direction of Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612), choirs were employed at St. Marks on a grand scale. Gabrieli composed motets for four choirs of four voices each, together with dissimilar groups of instruments in connection with the choirs. Contrast was the hallmark of the sixteenth century St. Marks motet. Einstein described this effect as; “Instead of voices, a work was built upon the question and answer, the timbre, the echo, the tonal combination of differently constituted choirs of voices and instruments.” (Einstein, 54) Giovanni Pierluiga da Palestrina is the archetype composer of the Counter Reformation. For Einstein, Palestrina is the “composer of the ideal type of church music, pure, purged of all subjectivity, marvelously harmonious…”(Einstein, 53) Palestrina studied and understood the newest developments of the motet, yet his motets embody “the Counter Reformation’s ideals of conservatism, inwardness, purification, and concentration…”(Grout, 272) Palestrina’s compositional style provided the matrix for the artistic culmination of the Spanish tradition, as embodied in the motets of Victoria. Tomas Luis de Victoria, a contemporary of Palestrina, was a more subjective composer of the motet. “Though his style is like that of Palestrina, Victoria infuses his music with a mystical intensity, a quality which makes it both thoroughly personal and typically Spanish.”(Grout, 273) Orlando di Lasso, another great contemporary of Palestrina, composed in a deeply personal tone. “In his motets both the over-all form and the details are generated from a pictorial, dramatic approach to the text.”(Grout, 274) Lasso’s In Hora Ultima demonstrates this approach in the “abrupt musical depiction’s of those worldly vanities…”(Grout, 274) William Byrd, an English contemporary of Palestrina, is noted for his perfection of the imitative techniques of the Continent and, in contrast to Palestrina, his “more intimate, subjective language.”(Grout, 276) With the end of the sixteenth century, music history ushers in the baroque period. The three hundred year development of the all important motet has laid the foundation of music for the great composers which would follow. The motet is called one of the most important music styles in history and its contributions have been limitless to our music history.


· Bukofzer, Manfred F., Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, NY. 1950. · Einstein, Alfred., A Short History of Music, Vintage Books, New York, NY. 1954. · Grout, Donald J., A History of Western Music, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, NY. 1973. · Harman, Alec, Man and His Music, Part One: Medieval and Early Renaissance Music, Schocken Books, New York, NY. 1972. · Mathiassen, Finn, The Style of the Early Motet, Dan Fog Musikforlag, Copenhagen, Denmark 1966. · Saide, Stanley, The New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 12, Macmillan Publishing Ltd., London, England 1980. · Thomson, James C., Music Through the Renaissance, Wm. C. Brown Co. Dubuque, Iowa 1968.

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