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.