The motet, though now largely absent from modern concerts, has nonetheless played a crucial role in the development of polyphonic music throughout the history of Western art music. What began as the simple application of new text to older music nearly eight hundred years ago went on to become one of the longest lasting and most influential genres of composition--and the perfect vehicle for early musicians to develop their own distinct voices as composers. Because its history is so expansive--both in its longevity and in its international span-- the term ‘motet’ has meant many things to many different people. While its origins can be traced back to early 13th century France, it was a very different motet which was popularized and exported to surrounding nations. The motet, like many other musical genres, found its polyphonic culmination in the learned hands of Johann Sebastian Bach though he was here again standing on the shoulders of more giants than many of his idolizers may care to admit to. An important aspect of motet writing--if not the most important-- was that as it grew, it necessitated the evolution of many technical parts of music writing--and changed people’s ideas about how music could be composed. The motet had passed through perhaps more hands than any other kind of polyphonic genre before it reached Bach, and those skilled hands left it grown and changed. Pérotin was the one who perhaps started the practice, though some time would pass before ideas changed and the more rhythmically complex motets of Guillaume de Machaut were to be possible. The well-traveled and cosmopolitan Guillaume Du Fay exemplified the newer, more consonant harmonies which were being disseminated throughout continental Europe in the fifteenth century (and in effect contributed to the more international harmonic language that was to be found there), and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the so-called “Prince of Music," brought the counterpoint found in motets to heights never before explored. All of these composers, and many more, played a crucial role in delivering the motet to Johann Sebastian Bach (who called only seven of his compositions “motet”).
The motet was one of, if not the most, important developments in early polyphony. Its popularity and adaptability led to its exportation to all parts of Europe, and so to define it with a set of discernible characteristics is difficult. The genre has existed through many different places and times, and has meant varying things to the people of those different places and times. For some of those people, the motet was a Latin liturgical setting and for later people, the motet had a secular text and was sung in the local language. We can, however, trace the origins of the motet back to France and, more specifically, to the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in the second half of the 12th century. A priest and composer by the name of Léonin was writing organa--usually duets based on Gregorian chant melodies (or plainchants) whose harmonies consisted largely of what we now consider perfect intervals. Organa started out as duets whose parts moved with rhythmic unity, but later the top voice became melismatic, that is, more florid and having more pitches when compared to the plainchant traveling below it. Sections with this type of polyphony--in which there are two distinct voices who text is the same (melismas would simply extend the syllable of what was usually a liturgical Latin text) were called clausulae. Clausulae composition was a training grounds for many new techniques, including hocket, repetition, phrase structure, imitation, retrogression, augmentation, and diminution. Léonin compiled the Magnus liber organi, the largest collection of organa and clausulae up to that point, whose plainchants were well-known throughout Europe. It was his successor at Notre Dame, however, who made the real advances which led to the motet. Pérotin, we know, would edit the organa and clausulae of his predecessor, expanding and improving upon them. Not much is known about these two composers of the Notre Dame cathedral, and what is known can be found in an anonymous treatise from about 1275:
“Note that master Léonin, according to what was said, was the best composer of organa, who made the great book of organum from the gradual and antiphonary to elaborate the diving service. And it was in use up to the time of Pérotin the Great, who edited it and made very many better clausulae or puncta, since he was the best composer of discant, and better than Léonin. But this is not to be said about the subtlety of the organum, etc."
But Master Pérotin [the term “Master” was used to describe someone who had earned a Master of Arts degree--both Léonin and Pérotin may have earned theirs at the University of Paris] himself made excellent quadrupla [a term used to describe organa in four voices], like “Viderunt” and “Sederunt,” with an abundance of colors of the harmonic art; and also several very noble tripla [a term used to describe organa featuring three voices], like “Alleluia posui auditorium,” “Nativitas,," etc."
Not only did Pérotin contribute additional voices to pre-existing organa, he also began to add new texts to the upper voice of melismatic clausulae. These texts, which were in Latin or in French, were first called motelli (from the French “mot," meaning “word”) , which later became “motet." The motet’s structure resembled that of the flying buttresses of the Notre Dame Cathedral in which Pérotin and Léonin worked: strong and wide low arches supported the smaller and more numerous arches which were stacked upon them. By having two sets of words at the same time, early motets were able to have textual interplay and expanded the possibility of meaning in music. As the vernacular French was introduced into motet writing in the thirteenth century, (motets were more and more frequently having their Latin plainchant melodies replaced by French ones), motets became more popular among the lay-people. Soon motets were often being performed with their plainchant melodies played on instruments--the origin of what would later become thoroughbass.
The Notre Dame tradition stopped being the dominant force in motet writing as new technical innovations such as Franco of Cologne’s new notational system became more widespread. Writing motets before the advent of Franco’s new rhythmic notation was troublesome as it was difficult to accurately determine aspects of rhythm we now take for granted, such as the concept of “the beat." Now, the individual lines in motets could be seen with more clarity and vital sight-reading became more possible.
As the motet traveled through Europe and time passed, it garnered more innovations, such as the double motet, which had different texts for both the second and third voices atop the plainchant melody. Also, bilingual motets--‘macaronic’-- became more common as the motet moved from the church setting to a more secular one. Furthermore, composers began to tackle the once daunting task of composing for more than three independent voices--‘triple motets’. Here again, we see music being described in more architectural terms. Johannes de Grocheio, the late 13th century French theoretician and author of the treatise Ars musicae, wrote that:
“the tenor [plainchant melody], however, is that part upon which all others are founded, just as the parts of a house or building are erected upon its fundament. It is their yardstick and gives them quantity.”
It was Philippe de Vitry, the great French musician-philosopher, who worked at taking the great variety of motets which proliferated early fourteenth-century Europe and reducing them to a single style of motet writing. de Vitry’s ‘maniere des motets’ allowed any number of variety of motets to be written within the framework of one single definitive style, and his motets show a move towards the equalization of importance with regards to the upper voices. One possible student of de Vitry was Guillame de Machaut, from whom we have received the largest surviving collection of Ars Nova (a term used to describe polyphony in France in the fourteenth century) motets. His writing is characteristic of the trends of the period, showing a preference for French texts and a move to more secular themes (this includes Machaut’s use of several tenors based on secular melodies). Other important compositional developments which occurred during the Ars Nova period include the disassociation with rhythmic modes. Up until this time, the rhythms applied to the plainchant melodies in motets were confined to one of six rhythmic schemes, which were based off of the alteration of short and long syllables found in spoken words.
Composers living outside of France by this time were very familiar with motet writing and as the Notre Dame motet-writing tradition faded from memory, it was the non-French composers who came to the forefront of the genre. Guillame du Fay was a Flemish composer who embodied the the changing ideals which would set off the musical Renaissance. du Fay spent several years of the beginning of the fifteenth century in Italy, absorbing its local compositional style into his own. His output of motet writing, while utilizing new techniques such as isorhythm ( a reaction against the rhythmic modes discussed earlier), reflects the more cosmopolitan nature of music writing which was to be come a central theme in Renaissance composition.
Motet writing was thriving off the continent as well. The most highly esteemed and influential of English composers during this time was John Dunstable, who utilized harmony in ways differing from that of his land-locked brothers-in-polyphony. Dunstable (sometimes spelled as ‘Dunstaple’) wrote popular music on the same Marian themes (that is, music worshipping or praising the virgin Mary) but with several differing musical aspects. Some of his motets for three or four voices were able to function as duets, using the outer lowest and high voices in consonant intervals. This kind of consonant two-part writing, which during this time was gaining popularity throughout Europe, would later serve as a fundamental aspect of first-species counterpoint. There were, naturally, other voices written in Dunstable’s motets which would serve to fill out the harmony, which was largely triadic. Dunstable’s writing was also remarkable in that it used nearly no use of plainchant melodies for the basis of composition--all parts were newly composed.
The most famous and influential of perhaps all motet writers around this time was undoubtedly Josquin du Prez, who was a key figure in motet development. Some of his techniques, such as a canonic doubling of the plainchant melody can be seen in his Marian sequera Inviolata, integra et casta es, Maria. This motet brings the importance of the plainchant melody and meaning to the forefront, as it features the other three voices in imitation of the foundational theme. Josquin furthermore may have been the first to have drawn upon psalms as sources of textual inspiration-- a tradition which continues to this day. Josquin (his international presence as a musical giant afforded him the honor of a one-word name) made use of another innovation--musical gestures which reflected the meaning of the text. This technique would foreshadow later madrigal writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In Spain, the motet had waited for some time before its proper importation. This was most likely due to the Reconquista, the reclaiming of the country by Catholic forces from its Muslim inhabitants, which prohibited any set arena for the performance of motets. However, after the union of Castile and Aragon under Ferdinand and Isabella in 1474, the Spanish were able to cultivate their own breed of the motet, which was largely influenced by the Flemish masters like Josquin--a product of Spain’s political presence in the Low Countries.
In the sixteenth century, the undisputed champion of the motet was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, an Italian composer who spent his whole life in the service of the church. While Palestrina kept plainchant as an integral part of motet writing, his work shows a level of order which was not present in his predecessors’. His motet writing above all is tempered and well-balanced, the beauty of which was praised for centuries to come as an ideal for which to strive for.
If Palestrina’s music served as the ordered and beautiful culmination of the developments which preceded it, it was the motets of Orlando di Lasso which were truly forward-looking. Lassus extended the effect to which music could be used to represent textual images, oftentimes using harsh melodic and rhythmic contrasts to convey meaning. Lassus by no means was confined to writing purely liturgical music and was well-known for his madrigals and songs.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the motet began falling out of favor as the principle vehicle of vocal polyphony composition. Claudio Monteverdi’s seconda prattica, which emphasized monody over polyphony (and also added more dissonance to the changing harmonic language) left motet writing largely untended, though the tradition was carried on by some traditionalists. Around this time, the term ‘motet’ was being used to describe any vocal church music--but two distinctions became apparent. In Counter-Reformation territories, the motet continued to exist in its traditional form but elsewhere, it was being adapted into what was called the ‘vocal concerto’ style, which incorporated instrumental aspects in addition to choral polyphony. The vocal concerto, some of whose main exponents were Alessandro Grandi and Ignazio Donati, was an immediate predecessor to the cantatas of J.S. Bach. With the popularity of operas such as L’Orfeo gaining, church music soon began making use of similar techniques. Alessandro Scarlatti wrote motets which were scored with orchestra and which borrowed both da capo form and the use of recitatives from opera.
One of J.S. Bach’s most important predescessors was Heinrich Schütz, who like many of the well-traveled composers of the day, received much of his musical training in forward-thinking Italy. Schütz, like Bach after him, composed much of his music in the new cantata style. The cantata, developed out of the vocal concerto offspring of the motet, had by the middle of the seventeenth century developed into music for voice and continuo with poetic texts, recitatives, and arias. That the new style of music had an emphasis on melody did not mean, however, the the old polyphony was to be thrown out:
“Yet sacred music did not abandon polyphony altogether. Composers were routinely trained to write in the old contrapuntal style associated with Palestrina and known as the stile antico (“old style”), which coexisted alongside the stile moderno (“modern style”). A composer might deploy both sides sometimes in a single piece. Over time, the stile antico was modernized as composers added a basso continuo and dependence on church modes gradually gave way to major-minor tonality. At the end of the Baroque period, Johann Joseph Fux codified this quasi- Palestrinian counterpoint in his famous treatise Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus, 1725), which remained the most influential textbook on counterpoint for the next two decades.”
For J.S. Bach, who grew up in the largely Protestant region of Thuringia, the vocal concerto is the style from which he drew many aspects of his cantata writing. He was surely influenced by the motet writings of his close relatives, such as Johann Christian and Johann Michael Bach, and by Pachelbel, all of whom contributed to the more cantabile style of writing which was in vogue around the young Sebastian. Bach’s motet output was dwarfed by that of the other genres in which he was immersed--there are seven motets: five for double chorus, one for four and five voices each. Significant attributes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s limited but exemplary motet writing include organization on a large scale, the likes of which had hitherto paled in comparison (a prime example of which can be found in Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freunde, which features a complicated eleven-part symmetry). Furthermore, the relationship between text and music was raised to new heights under Bach, who would use musical-rhetorical gestures to symbolize the meaning of the liturgical words which inspired it.
The motet, perhaps more than any other genre of vocal music, had undergone drastic change before it reached its eighteenth-century culmination with Johann Sebastian Bach. It was a continually evolving form, one which defied attempts at definition and which eventually outgrew any terminology which was applied to it. It is to the motet that we owe many advances in polyphony and in music generally-- its history is one which ought not be overlooked in the study of Western music.
Sadie, and Tyrell, eds. "Motet." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. 2001.p.190
Jeremy Yudkin, The Music Treatise of Anonymous IV: A New Translation, Musicological Studies and Documents 41 (Neuhausen-Stuttgart: American Institute of Musicology/ Hänssler-Verlag, 1985), p.39
Hanning, Barbara Russano. Concise History of Western Music, Third Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.p.199