May 7, 2012

The 13th-century motet

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 5

“Motetus”. Clemencic Consort/René Clemencic. Stradivarius (link)

Over the course of the 13th century, the main polyphonic forms, organum and conductus, declined in popularity to be replaced by a new form, the motet (this name being a diminutive form of mot, the French for ‘word’). To understand how the motet came about we must look back at a particular aspect of the polyphony developed by Leonin and the Notre Dame school: the clausula. This was a segment of organum in which a short piece of text, usually just a word or two, was sung melismatically using many notes while the tenor voice slowly sang the text once. Musicians began to replace the melismas with new texts that had some relevance to the words of the organum and that were sung syllabically. Clausulas were regarded as separate modules that could be inserted into an organum as needed, but this independence meant that over time they began to be sung on their own as a composition called a motet (which, you may remember, is what happened with the sequence in Gregorian chant). The new text and its music was referred to as the duplum or motetus, and there could also be another, separate but topically related, text on top of that, called the triplum, and there could even be a quadruplum. As the Clemencic Consort demonstrates on its album, new motet texts weren’t necessarily in Latin: while the tenor text remained a Latin phrase, the duplum (and triplum, if there was one) could be in French. And once the language switched to the vernacular, it shouldn’t be surprising that the topics should change to more secular concerns, and the lyrics resemble the poetry of the trouvères.

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)

Thus, as Gothic Voices describe it, the 13th-century motet represents a “marriage of heaven and hell” where the music of the church meets the music of court and urban life. All this discussion of texts, however, ignores a crucial aspect of the development of the motet: a revolution in musical notation. In the polyphony of the Notre Dame school, rhythmic patterns corresponding to verse meters were notated by grouping notes together; there were six of these rhythmic modes, defined by combinations of long and short notes (for example, mode II corresponded to iambic meter and consisted of a short note followed by a long). When composers began to set texts syllabically, however, or wanted to use greater rhythmic variety, this form of notation was inadequate, and so a new system emerged that we now take completely for granted: the use of different symbols to indicate notes of different lengths. This system was described by Franco of Cologne around 1280 and involved a basic time unit called a tempus (plural, tempora), three of which were defined as a “perfection”. The three note values were the long, breve, and semibreve, and the perfection would consist of combinations of these notes. The long was called “perfect” and was worth three tempora, which corresponds to today’s dotted half-note; the breve was worth a single tempus and was divided into two or three semibreves depending on the circumstances; what’s more, the values of the long and breve could also be altered by their positions relative to each other. Franco’s importance in codifying this system of mensural notation mean that the term Franconian motet is generally applied to motets of this period. After Franco came Petrus de Cruce, who divided the breve into four or more semibreves and gave the triplum a freer and livelier rhythm as a result; this later style has become known as the Petronian motet.

“Love’s Illusion: Music from the Montpellier Codex”. Anonymous 4. Harmonia Mundi [link]

A major source for 13th-century motets is the Montpellier Codex, which was compiled around the year 1300 and in its organisation illustrates the evolution of the form. The first of its eight parts presents liturgical polyphony, and the subsequent sections demonstrate in succession the various types of motets, beginning with Latin ones and then moving on to those that combine Latin and French and finally those in French alone; it’s worth noting that only the earlier motets have tenors taken from the liturgy, which highlights how the motet became secularized. Moreover, all of the compositions are presented in some form of mensural notation, with the later ones appearing in the fully fledged Franconian notation described above. This form of notation also made another practical contribution to music making: With upper voices having longer texts and many more notes, the tenor line in the manuscript would be characterised by lengthy blank spaces, which was a waste of parchment. Given that the use of note length values meant that the voices no longer had to be precisely aligned on the page, the motetus and triplum could be physically separated and written in adjacent columns or on facing pages, with the tenor on a single line beneath, thus saving space. This approach, called the choirbook format, remained in common use until the 16th century.

“Hoquetus”. Theatre of Voices/Paul Hillier. Harmonia Mundi (link)

Finally, a look at a technique used by 13th-century composers to add further variety to their music: the hocket. The composers of the Notre Dame school used silence in the form of rests of defined length and also overlapped voices so that they didn’t all pause together, and in motets these ideas were taken a step further. The word hocket comes from the French hoquetus, meaning “hiccup”, and it involved the splitting up of a melody using rests such that the melody was shared by different voices; the first voice might sing the first note or short phrase of the melody and then rest while the second voice sang the second note or phrase and then rested, with the melody returning to the first voice, and so on, the music bouncing back and forth between the singers. For a composition that was already moving fast, with many semibreves, this would impart an energetic rhythm, and so hocketing was often used for dramatic effect. According to the French writer Johannes de Grocheio – whose treatise Ars musicae of about 1300 describes the music of Paris and its social context – hockets were popular among the young and excitable. Although senior clerics of the time voiced their disapproval of the use of hockets in sacred music, hockets continued to be used throughout the 14th century, until they became superceded by new developments in composition. Theatre of Voice’s album provides various examples of the use of hockets in the 13th and 14th centuries, thus giving us a preview of some of the music to be discussed in upcoming chapters.

Note: The album “Hoquetus” is currently available as part of a double album with the confusing title “Monastic Chant”.

Selected tracks from the above albums are available in a mix at

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant   (8tracks mix)
Part 2. From chant to polyphony   (8tracks mix)
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères  (8tracks mix)
Part 4. Troubadour influences  (8tracks mix)

Filed under A History of Classical Music, Classical