Clus or Clar II: The Motet

This kind of song ought not to be propagated among the vulgar, since they do not understand its subtlety nor do they delight in hearing it, but it should be performed for the learned and those who seek after the subtleties of the arts. — Grocheio, about the motet, c. 1300 (I, 226)

One major theme of the book so far has been the complex relationship between description and prescription as it relates to newly-developed notational styles and theories. Do theories and notations actively affect music composition, or are they the handmaiden to preexisting practices? Of course, they paradoxically do both. The relationship reminds me of that M.C. Escher drawing of two hands drawing themselves into existence (below).


With newly developed Franconian notation came a greater level of rhythmic complexity to notated music, and the motet was the first genre to fully capitalize on this potential. As Taruskin writes in reference to a motet from this era: “Such a piece was a triumph of literate contrivance, one whose craftsmanly intricacy depended utterly on the written medium.” (I, 228) Indeed, there is a playful quality to much of this music, as if composers were experimenting with novelties just because, for the first time, they could.

The hyper-literate nature of the early motets made the genre an ideal showcase for the elite, literati classes. However, the more technically complex and bound to written notation the motet became, the more out of reach it grew for those unschooled in music theory/notation, the people Grocheio endearingly labeled “the vulgar.” It’s quite the irony, therefore – as Taruskin points out – that many motet texts were pastoral love poems about shepherds and other ordinary folk. Motet singers sang earthy poetry about the exact types of people who “that kind of song ought not be propagated among.” We’re back to the questions raised initially by the trobar clus and trobar clar, the “closed” and “clear” song styles of the trouvéres. (And back to Mark’s first post on the question.) Should music be for all or for the few?

Of course, setting the tales of the shepherd lovers Robin and Marion as the lyrics for a double motet doesn’t automatically show sympathy for the “types” these ordinary folks represent. Moreover, I’m skeptical that the average listener would be able to decipher the lyrics in the first place, seeing as they are polytextually amalgamated into an impenetrably dense web of words. In this intricate, clever musical structure, Robin and Marion disappear entirely, existing only on the written page.



  1. Mark Samples says:

    I’m continually attuned to the battle between clus and clar amongst my writings as a musicologist. I’m firmly of the mind that “clar is better,” and yet I still find myself writing things like this phrase from a post earlier today: “…with a focus on the directional flow of anatomical priority.” Huh?

  2. Zach Wallmark says:


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  4. Wes Shadle says:

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