Du Fay and Machaut

Guillaume Du Fay, Nuper rosarum flores

This motet, composed for the dedication of a cathedral in Florence, features a staggeringly complex architecture based on certain symbolically important numbers. In fact, numerological patterning functions in overlapping systems to produce different simultaneous significations. For instance, the metrical signatures throughout form a ratio of 6:4:2:3, which happens to be the Pythagorean proportions. The ratio also corresponds to architectural descriptions of the great temple in Jerusalem found in the second book of Kings. (This was also a particularly apt numerological pattern to draw, as the motet was written for the dedication of a new cathedral.) In addition to all of that, the number 7 plays a prominent role in the piece, both structurally and poetically (7-syllable lines). Seven is a number associated strongly with the Virgin Mary, to whom the new cathedral was being dedicated. The mind spins.

Taruskin ends Chapter 8 with a theory that answers our quandary about why multiple texts were used in the motet genre, even though they couldn’t possibly be understood: “The mind-boggling effect of the fourteenth-century ceremonial motet, confirmed by numerous witnesses, may have actually depended on the sensory overload delivered by its multiplicity of voices and texts. If so, it was not the first time that what we would call aesthetic value and power would be extracted from the inscrutable. (A large part of the aesthetic value, as well as the sacredness, of the earliest melismatic chant derived from what Dante might have called its slipperiness.) And it certainly will not the be the last. Whenever the ‘sublime’ is valued as an artistic quality, so is awe. And what produces awe must be unfathomable as well as thrilling.”  (I, 286-287)

I’ll close this post with a sneak peak preview to Machaut. This is his motet/virelai hybrid Lasse/Se j’aime/POURQUOY. Expect more on this towering figure of the 14th century in Week 7.