The Motet’s Bizarre Relationship with Text

The genre of the motet came about simply enough. Early practitioners added text to preexisting pieces of discant (polyphony with wordless melisma) and voila. In effect, the addition of texts – some Biblical, some glosses on Biblical passages, and some straight-up secular poetry a la trouvéres – brought the sureness and stability of language back into the polyphonic endeavor. (Remember, in the music of the Notre Dame school, the text was slowed down to such an extent as to render it abstract.) Where N.D. organum cum alio featured the free, text-less flow of voices, the motet composers, like in earlier chant, put the text front and center.

Or did they? Despite the triumphant Return of the Words to this repertory, language functions in an incredibly idiosyncratic way in the motet. One of the most bewildering features of this new genre is its juxtaposition of different texts. But not just cut-and-paste linear combinations of different poetry like we saw in the tropes. Many motets actually employ different texts in different voices at the same time (polytextuality). This is what is meant by a “double motet” (or “triple motet,” etc when additional texts/voices are combined). Furthermore, the texts in question don’t even have to be in the same language! Thus, in one motet, we might have a well-known text plus its explication at the same time.

I can think of no other instance in Western music where different texts are sung simultaneously (except opera, for dramatic reasons). In this respect, the motet is sui generis. But instead of occupying the position of a freak show in Western music, the motet was once of the most flexible, enduring, and sophisticated musical developments of its age. Its influence stretched for the next few hundred years.

How did such an enigmatic musical phenomenon come about? The problem of text is an ancient one in the history of our art. St. Augustine saw a threat in the seductive music of  his day since it distracted him from the meaning of the text. Our earliest repertory, chant, is a musical delivery system for religious texts – even when early notation adumbrated and obfuscated the melodies (neumes aren’t terribly precise), the written word stood clear on the page, unambiguous and stable. When the chant was put in the tenor and slowed down to accommodate torrents of melisma, however, the text was unseated in its central position. This might be seen as the beginning of a purely musical impulse in the Western notated tradition. In the Notre Dame school, this impulse intensified, as evinced by such pieces as “Viderunt Omnes,” which, as discussed, runs some three minutes on just five syllables of text.

The relationship between text and music has always had an ebb and flow dynamic. There have been eras, composers, genres, schools that tend towards clear declamation and others that tend towards the more purely musical (“purely musical” sounds like an unfair term. Let’s use the neutral if bland “non-texted”). This dynamic, of course, cannot be said to affect any sort of linear progression of music – it’s inaccurate to say that text was ahead in the 9th century, textlessness in the 13th, like a horse race. Rather, musics until the development of instrumental genres struck different balance betweens the poles of clear textual declamation and voice-as-sonic-matter. (Rhetorical concepts, prosody, and other linguistic elements guided the development of instrumental music as well, so even the “purely musical” isn’t entirely free from language.) The relationship between text and music has sparked a number of famous quarrels in music history, perhaps most notably the Artusi/Monteverdi scuffle: 16th century madrigals relied on the text for their meaning but did not for the most part make the words understandable in the dense web of polyphony. Seeking to rectify this, more representational, uni-directional forms such as opera were created (and with this genre, it’s fair to say that is was created.) The text was once again heard.

The double (triple) motet is a strange beast. It puts the text in the center of its organization – indeed, text is what differentiates motets from plain discant – while simultaneously undermining the importance of text by making it impossible to understand. There might be a performative element to this: motets were written for the individual performers, all of whom would of course understand the text they themselves are singing. There are also a couple of other forces at work in this genre. Double motets were enabled by notation. This sort of dense interlocking of different texts (languages!) into a polyphonic structure would have been exceedingly difficult without a way of capturing it all on parchment. It might have even been totally unimaginable in a purely oral tradition. Moreover, notational advances (Franconian notation) allowed for text and rhythm to be captured together without the ligature patterns necessary to modal rhythm. Taruskin: “It is a notation specially tailored to the requirements of motets, that is musica cum littera.” (I, 214)

Text in the double motet was clearly not meant to be heard by an audience. It provides an abstract conceptual underpinning to a piece, and is clearly legible in print but not in sound. This was a major step in the ever-increasing power and influence of written notation over musical practice.

On Anonymity

When discussing a musical tradition that is quite foreign to one’s own, it’s only natural to draw comparisons to what is known and understood. Putting the alien into a familiar context can help open up the proverbial windows and get some light in the room. Saying something like “troping is the same as sampling” is of course a crude oversimplification, but at its root, this thought betrays the perception of sameness (that is, familiarity) that can shoot through centuries and cultural differences. Critical comparisons like these can help one to form conceptual bonds with the past or with other cultures.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many of our discussions on the blog so far have drawn parallels to our present musical landscape. This has been done in the spirit of playfulness and fun, but also to help put the pieces together and make meaning out of traditions that are long gone. I can’t help it – when I think about tropes, hip-hop production is the first thing that comes to mind. A big part of the reason why I think we’ve been drawing so many parallels to today is that music from the Middle Ages often has more in common with predominantly oral, “popular” lineages than it does with canonical Western art music. It makes sense to take a more ethnomusicological approach to this topic, therefore. In many ways, chant and secular music from this era share more with folk music, pop songwriting, and yes, hip-hop, than they do with Beethoven.

As Taruskin reminds us, orality and literacy have always been engaged in a complex pas de deux through the centuries. Even though notational technologies were available from around the 9th-10th centuries, music making remained primarily an oral tradition, and notated music simply attempted to capture what singers already knew. But at a certain point (or rather, many certain points), the pendulum swung towards literacy as the primary means of transmission.

To shift gears slightly, lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of composer anonymity and its role in shaping this repertory. Anonymity is fundamentally a trait of the oral tradition. In folk signing traditions, for instance, complex lineages of who learned a song from whom are often highly valued, but the origins of most songs are murky. In many (perhaps most) cultures around the world, songs are said to have been created by ancestors or the Gods. Some cultures view their song repertory as something that simply always has been. Similarly, most chant cannot be pinned down to a specific composer. Like the composition of the Indian ragas, Gregory was said to have received direct dictation from God. The idea of the “composer” didn’t really come about until the pendulum had swung a little more towards literacy.

For example, Hildegard’s music was elaborate, florid, and not always intuitive. There is little chance that her music would have been remembered and passed on in the same way as plainchant – it’s simply too difficult. Once music surpassed a certain threshold of technical complexity, notation became a much more valuable technology of transmission. Hildegard’s music was in many ways enabled by notation. Likewise, because it was affixed to a thing from the beginning, so too did her name enter the material record.

Oral traditions tend to value continuity more than innovation. One can certainly composer orally, as Taruskin wrote at the beginning of the volume, but is that composer going to be remembered? Indeed, is he going to even want to be remembered? In an oral paradigm, an individual’s unique contribution to the flowing river of music is  just a drop in an unchanging yet constantly moving tradition. No wonder we don’t have the names of many chant composers – they didn’t have the technology to pass their compositions down, of course, but just as important, they didn’t think like composers.

Literacy is one of the defining qualities of Western music (indeed, the defining characteristic according to Taruskin). But literacy also enabled an equally important concept, one that also defines Western music – the composer. We can see the faint stirrings of the composer concept now: fewer and fewer musical examples are anonymous as notation grew more precise and powerful. In a couple hundred years, composers will be well-known throughout their regions and in the employ of kings and churches. A couple hundred years after that, they will be the Gods.

[Addendum:] Continuing with our little tradition of bringing up current music in our discussions of the Middle Ages, the hip-hop practice of hiding one’s true identity through clever monikers is a fascinating phenomenon. All of these masks – many performers go under multiple aliases – fracture the concept of an individual composer/creator. In some ways, could we be returning to an oral, composerless paradigm?

Oral Composition and Questions of Method

To some, “oral composition” might seem a contradiction of terms. After all, by composing something, which in today’s usage means “writing music down,” one is cutting it out of the oral tradition and giving it a spatial manifestation in place of fallible memory. As Taruskin takes pains to remind us, however, orality and literary coexisted for some time: “.. It is important to remember that literacy did not suddenly replace ‘orality’ as a means of musical transmission but gradually joined it” (I, 17). Even after the “curtain went up” and early notational forms came into existence, music making was largely within the purview of the ear, not the eye.

The field of musicology has long neglected the profound influence of the oral tradition in the development of our musical culture. Since no concrete records exist for musics that are transmitted without documentation, traditional musicologists, steeped as they are in textual analysis, are at a loss. How does one describe a process that isn’t recorded?

Taruskin shows us two ways. First, by comparing a family of Graduals, we can see that many phrases across the different versions are really just variations on the same finite set of melodic formulas. What does this tell us? Perhaps it indicates that certain parts of the repertory in question were interchangeable, and that ensembles chose formulas for cadences and other structurally important places from a body of similar functional phrases. It also could indicate that the same pieces were performed in different ways, and that the variation in performances resulted in different notated versions of the Graduals.

In addition – and I love this – Taruskin cites the work of Nicholas Temperley on “The Old Way of Singing” (I, 27). Temperley is not an early music specialist. Indeed, he’s a scholar of Anglo-American church music whose work centers on the oral tradition and how it has worked in this context. Stymied by the opacity of the oral tradition, many a musicologist would simply admit defeat and move on to the next textually supportable observation. But instead, Taruskin draws on the research of a scholar dealing with American music in the last few hundred years. I can’t say entirely if the transference of perspectives is valid (the way oral tradition worked in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne’s time may be very different from oral tradition in American churches), but the effort to validate and understand the role of orality on early music repertory is admirable. (By the way, Temperley says that when wordless singing traditions go for years without formal direction, they have a tendency to become extremely slow, weak in rhythmic detail, and rife with new melodic contributions.)

The perspectives Taruskin introduces – song family analysis, musical behavior within certain cultures, etc. – aren’t really common in many a musicological study. Indeed, they share more with our sister field, ethnomusicology. This begs the question: why aren’t more ethnomusicological theories incorporated into our understanding of music from the Middle Ages? Indeed, chant and similar repertories are, in many ways, more consistent with what ethno- examines than they are with what music- examines, a fact that I’d like to write more about this week (although it might go back into Week 1 reading territory!). The fascinating interaction between literate and oral traditions is the typical academic terrain of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and pop music scholars. I would even argue that the research topic of jazz improvisation could elucidate interesting corners of this repertory (melodic formulas called up by memory in similar contexts = licks). Contributions from all these fields would really enrich our understanding of early music. Musicologists would be remiss not to take them into account.