Micrologus; The Roots of the Motet
83-09 THE ROOTS OF THE MOTET
Today, we will be exploring the origins and early decades of that durable form which we now associate mostly with the music of the Renaissance. But even by the 16th century, the motet had been in existence for about 300 years, and had changed drastically in sound and function from its early days.
The story of the motet properly begins with Gregorian chant, since chant provided the inspiration and the musical raw material on which the first motets were based. Here is the opening of the "Alleluia Pascha nostrum" sung by the Choralschola of Maria Einsiedeln, directed by Roman Bannwart.
You may have noticed that part of that chant was sung by a soloist and part by the whole choir. In the late 1100s, the principal singers at Notre Dame in Paris devised a way of embellishing their solo sections by improvising a new, florid melody, while the original chant was made to move at a much slower pace underneath their fanciful creations. The intent was to make the piece grander and more solemn. Here are the first ten notes of that same chant treated in such a way. The performance is by the Capella Antiqua of Munich, under Konrad Ruhland.
Well, obviously, if that technique were applied throughout a piece of chant, the resulting work would be much too long for normal liturgical use. And especially those sections of the chant with very little text—"melismas" we call them—would seem unending. So someone hit on the idea of speeding up the chant during some of the melismas. It was made to move almost, but not quite, as fast as the upper part and both parts were strongly rhythmicized. Here's a section of a work by Leonin which demonstrates this style.
Then, of course, the melisma over, the texture would revert to the sustained-note style that we heard earlier. That was James Bowman, by the way, with the Early Music Consort of London, directed by David Munrow. The term we use for these rhythmicized sections is discant clausula—discant, because that is the term for counterpoint which is simple rather than florid; and clausula means "closing."
In this next selection, an instrumental improvisation, we hear first the Gregorian melody stated in a rhythmic pattern which was very popular in clausulas, then as the melody repeats, a series of discant-style improvisations, ending with several instruments improvising simultaneously. It was this latter style, with up to three improvising voices, which was developed by Leonin's successor at Notre Dame, Perotin. The performance is by the Medieval Ensemble of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis.
The final step in the origin of the motet came when the singers decided to add words to the improvised voice of a clausula. The term, in fact, comes from the old French word for "word." The first texts they chose tor this purpose are what we called tropes—embellishments of the sentiment of the original chant text. Here, for example, is a motet within a Leonin-style version of the "Alleluia Pascha Nostrum." Alleluias, of course, are musical exclamations of joy; the text to the motet within it begins: Gaudeat devotio fidelium (Let the devotion of the faithful be raised in rejoicing). The performance is by the Capella Antiqua of Munich, under Konrad Ruhland.
Composers seem very quickly to have appreciated the musical possibilities of the clausula style and the motet. In fact, in the piece we just heard, the Gregorian melody, or tenor, was repeated so that it would last longer and provide further opportunities for treatment in the style. In some motets, the chant tenor is repeated three or four times! Obviously, composers had lost sight of the original idea behind the discant treatment, which was to shorten the works.
Perhaps because of this "malfunction," in the early decades of the 13th century, the motet became an independent form, outside of its original liturgical context and probably even outside the church as well.
The next selection illustrates a number of typical features of the motet at this time. First of all, it uses one of the most popular tenor melodies of the repertoire—one which is still taken from a chant, in spite of the fact that the motet is no longer directly associated with the performance of the chant. Secondly, it has two voices composed against the tenor, each of which has its own text. That is, the two upper parts simultaneously declaim different texts. This "polytextuality" remains a characteristic of motets for over 200 years.
Another aspect of the text is that the French language begins to be used occasionally, emphasizing, by its very presence as well as its subject matter, the distance between the motet and its old context within the church service.
To give you an idea of what it must have been like for 13th century listeners to receive simultaneous and conflicting messages, here are translations of what is coming, presented with the help of 20th century technology: “O mittssima/Quant voi revenir/Virgo virginum," performed by the Early Music Consort of London, directed by David Munrow.
When I see summer returning,
The woods resound with blithe birdsong,
Then, I weep and sigh in deep yearning
For lovely Marion, who has enslaved my heart.
O Virgin of Virgins, light of light,
O maker of men, who hast borne the Lord,
Through thee, O Mary, may forgiveness be granted,
As the Angel announced—Virgin before and after.
Of course, the drum in that performance emphasized the secular character of the piece, but we actually know very little about the role of instruments in the performance of early motets, beyond the fact that they must have taken part, at least occasionally. There are, for example, a few untexted works among the motets which seem to have been meant for instruments alone. Most of these pieces use the curious technique known as hocket, from the old French word for "hiccup," in which the melody is fragmented among the different voices in hiccup-like alternation.
Two hockets based on the ever-popular "In seculum" tenor melody performed by the Early Music Consort of London. The hocket technique seems also to have been used by singers, but to a lesser extent. Ensemble Sequentia demonstrates the sound of hocket for voices with a piece based on the tenor, ''Tanquam."
Back in the mainstream of the development of the motet in the mid-13th century, several things were happening. One was that composers felt the old urge to add more and more notes against each note of the tenor, with the consequence that the tenor had to slow down to accommodate them. Another was that composers began to depend less on Gregorian chant as a source and to explore other possibilities for musical material, like contemporary French song. This next piece illustrates both of these trends: the tenor and the second part are both based on French chansons and the upper part joins them in the new, slightly more florid style. Again the performance is by Ensemble Sequentia: "S'on me regarde/Prennes i garde."
An odd extension of the trend toward more florid writing in the upper part of motets came at the end of the century with the works of Petrus de Cruce and his school. Composers at the time were beginning to gain more control over the notation of rhythm and Petrus de Cruce used that control to specify anywhere up to nine short notes where, at the beginning of the 13th century, there most commonly had been only one. Obviously, the trend toward the slowing of the tenor part was continuing, as the upper parts became increasingly florid. Also, the irregular number of short notes within each beat gives a distinctive air to the works of Petrus de Cruce. Here is his "Aucun ont trouvé/Lonc temps me sui," performed by the Early Music Consort of London.
The last piece on today's show extends some of the techniques we have heard already and introduces some new ones. The trend to increasing floridity in the upper parts reaches a new plateau; the feature of polytextuality is maintained, but the language of the texts reverts back to Latin from French; and ·the repeated rhythmic pattern which we heard applied to the tenor in many of the early motets is here extended into a much longer, more complex repetition scheme involving both rhythm and melody. This is something we call “Isorhythm." The subject, too, has changed from courtly love to political satire, and relating to that, there appears to be an astonishing overlay of medieval number symbolism. Just as a small sample of the type of number symbolism involved, I will mention the important image of Christus Iudex—Christ sitting in judgment on the evildoers—in the motet. Now, the letters XI are very often used as an abbreviation for Christ, and they also happen to represent the number 11 in Roman numerals. It happens in this motet that there are 11 sharp signs, 11 flat signs, 11 phrases in each of the upper parts, 11 rests in the tenor, and the word Christo begins on the 11th measure of the final section of the piece. Some of this may be coincidence, but remember that this is only a small part of the symbolism which can be detected in the piece. ‘Garrit Gallus/In nova fert" by the prophet and first composer of the Ars nova, the new style of the 14th century, and the father of the so-called isorhythmic motet, Philippe de Vitry. The Early Music Quartet performs.
With the establishment of isorhythm as a technique, the composition of motets was set on a course which was to last for almost 150 years—the very threshold of the Renaissance. But that is another story.
- The Roots of the Motet
- Producing Organization
- Contributing Organization
- Ross W. Duffin (Pasadena, California)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Today, we will be exploring the origins and early decades of that durable form which we now associate mostly with the music of the Renaissance. But even by the 16th century, the motet had been in existence for about 300 years, and had changed drastically in sound and function from its early days.
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- Talk Show
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Host: Duffin, Ross
Producing Organization: CWRU
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Ross W. Duffin
Identifier: cpb-aacip-100a03ac321 (Filename)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Micrologus; The Roots of the Motet,” 1983, Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 3, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-c06bef65209.
- MLA: “Micrologus; The Roots of the Motet.” 1983. Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 3, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-c06bef65209>.
- APA: Micrologus; The Roots of the Motet. Boston, MA: Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-c06bef65209