Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME


The Medieval Motet

Alice V. Clark

(Last updated 7 October 2004)


The medieval motet is perhaps the quintessential medieval genre: based on chant, combining different texts, exploiting the intersections between what we separate as "sacred" and "secular," relying on intertextuality and sometimes arcane symbolism to create meaning, the motet is less about music as sound (though sound obviously does matter) than about harmonies that are beyond the merely audible. In that way, the motet perhaps best exemplifies the thought of people such as Boethius, who argued that the true musician was one who understood and had the capacity to judge, not (or not only) one who had instinctive talent, and that the highest forms of music were those that cannot be heard--with the most important being "the music of the spheres." The ways that the medieval motet are difficult for many modern listeners are therefore among its most characteristic aspects, and the ones that perhaps most clearly mark the genre as medieval.

This article is divided into the following sections:

The Thirteenth- Century Motet
The Fourteenth-Century Motet in France
The Motet in England in the Middle Ages
The Motet in Italy in the Middle Ages
The End of the Medieval Motet
Conclusion: What Is a Motet?

For other ORB music entries, see


In the beginning was chant. This chant became the basis for much early polyphony, including the organum of the Notre-Dame school. (For more on chant and early polyphony, go to Cynthia Cyrus's Introduction to Medieval Music.) A new development of Notre-Dame polyphony in the late twelfth to early thirteenth century was the discant clausula, a discrete section of polyphony based on a regular rhythmic pattern; these sections usually were applied to melismas in the original chant that underlays most settings of Notre-Dame polyphony.

Because these clausulae tended to be musically closed, either beginning and ending in such a way that they could be separated from their organum source or capable of being so altered, it became easy to replace sections of discant with other sections of discant. As clausulae began to circulate in their own collections, ready for use in organum as needed, it also became possible to use them outside the liturgy, as free-standing musical pieces. This is perhaps when someone got the bright idea to add words to the top part, therefore creating the earliest motets. (The term is said to be derived from the French mot = word.)

The first motets were therefore relatively closely linked to their origins in organum, and they circulate in the same sources. It is not surprising, then, that many of them have Latin texts that can be read as tropes or glosses on the chants on which they are based.It is possible that such motets could have been performed as part of the liturgy, even as part of the appropriate organum setting. One early motet, Gaudeat devotio fidelium / T. Nostrum, does in fact appear as part of a two-part organum setting of its host chant, Alleluia Pascha nostrum, in a fragment now in Copenhagen.

The notion that motets are simply texted clausulae has been questioned, however, by such scholars as Mark Everist, who would see the two genres more as flowering in parallel, or even see the clausula as a notationally-convenient reduction of a motet in an era where rhythmic notation for single pitches did not yet exist. The manuscript transmission of both genres would indeed seem to support the idea that the motet does not simply supplant the untexted clausula, but rather that both flourished, together or separately, well into the thirteenth century. It is certainly possible that later clausulae were not created to serve as part of a piece of organum but either as independent pieces or as in a sense de-texted motets. Nevertheless, as an admittedly simplistic creation narrative, the idea that the clausula came first does seem to have continued explanatory value.

Most of the earliest motets are in two voices, but there are also some examples of a type called the conductus motet, where two voices move together with a single text over a tenor.

The Thirteenth-Century Motet

Composers recognize fairly quickly other possibilities for this new genre, and secular motets, with texts usually in French, begin to proliferate, though Latin sacred motets continue to appear throughout the thirteenth century. Subjects for thirteenth-century secular motets range from thinly disguised Marian allegory, to male lover's complaints, to celebrations of love, to pastourelles and complaints in a female voice, to one example that uses cries of Parisian street vendors.

Many motets from the thirteenth century continue to be based on or related to discant clausulae, with composers occasionally adding new musical lines and/or replacing one text with another. One could see the norm by mid-century as a three-voice motet, where each of the two voices above the tenor has its own text, and whose phrase endings tend to overlap so that all voices do not rest together until the motet's end.The reality, however, is far more complicated. The thirteenth-century motet is in fact among the most fragile of musical "works": a single example can appear in different sources as a two-part clausula without text apart from its chant source, as a two-part Latin sacred motet whose upper-voice text tropes the chant, as a two-part secular motet with French text, as a three-part motet in Latin or French (or both), or even as a single voice--the possibilities are practically infinite, and any number of hands could play a part in shaping a single motet, or rather group of motets.

This tendency toward motet complexes rather than the single, fixed entities we might expect suggests not only a relatively weak status for the "work" and its creator/s (most of whom remain anonymous), but also tremendous opportunities for intertextual connections, as one poet-composer seems to respond to another, adding ever newer layers of meaning. Not all elements of a given motet complex may "know" each other, but some doubtless do. This kind of creative play is an essential part of the thirteenth-century motet, and it continues to have a role in the fourteenth century.

Creative play is also present in the frequent use of preexisting song refrains, with and without music, in a number of motets. Various attempts have been made to categorize and explain the use of refrains in motets, most recently by Mark Everist, though his work is not universally accepted. For our purposes it is perhaps best simply to marvel at the myriad ways in which refrains are employed, and the intertextual connections such use makes possible.

Sylvia Huot also studies thirteenth-century motets in terms of intertextuality, but her field is far broader, encompassing biblical and liturgical connections as well as those relating to refrains, other genres of French literature, and indeed other motets themselves. This is an area of work popular with many scholars of the medieval motet, including the present author.

The use of a clausula source begins to wane over the course of the thirteenth century, but, even if a composer does not begin with a clausula, the motet often continues to be based on a fragment of chant in its lowest voice, called the tenor. Even this generalization, however, must be qualified, because there is a small group of motets based not on chant but on secular songs. Motets in England and Italy also tend not to use chant-based tenors, as will be seen below.

Clausulae tended to be based on short repeated rhythmic patterns called rhythmic modes, and so therefore do the earliest motets. These patterns tend to lose their hold on the upper voices in particular fairly quickly, requiring changes in the notational system that are described by the mid-thirteenth-century theorist Franco of Cologne. Toward the end of the century, motets with rapid motion in the triplum (the third or usually highest voice), combined with a slower-moving motetus and tenor are found; these are often called Petronian, after the late-thirteenth-century composer and theorist Petrus de Cruce.

Despite the decreased importance of the rhythmic modes, the habit of relying on repeated rhythmic patterns (not necessarily modal) in the tenor continues in most motets through the thirteenth century and beyond. Aside from this rhythmic repetition, and the frequent restatement of the tenor melody, musical repetition and imitation are not generally characteristic of the motet, at least as practiced in France at this time.

The Fourteenth-Century Motet in France

The distinction between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in discussions of the motet is in one sense artificial, underemphasizing the continuities that exist despite a gap in sources between the Montpellier codex (whose latest layer was probably copied around 1300) and the sources surrounding Chaillou de Pesstain's manuscript of the Roman de Fauvel (copied c. 1316-17) on the one hand, and the earliest manuscripts of Guillaume de Machaut (copied in the 1350s) and the Ivrea Codex (whose repertory is also mid-century) on the other. In another sense, however, it does have some value, as I will argue below.

The fourteenth-century motet in France, like its thirteenth-century relative, is still most often based on a fragment of chant, placed in the tenor and given a repeated rhythmic pattern as the primary musical structural device. (There are a few motets based on secular song, but Machaut's three appear to be the last of this type; some motets also appear to be built on newly-composed melodies, but those tend to be treated like borrowed chant, as tenors with repeated rhythmic patterns, and they are often given text incipits as though they were chant.) This rhythmic pattern, which medieval theorists sometimes call a talea, or cutting, tends to be longer in the fourteenth-century motet, using longer note values than in thirteenth-century examples and therefore heightening the distinction made between more rapidly-moving upper voices and a slow-moving tenor. Where a motet has a fourth voice, usually a contratenor that moves in basically the same melodic range and on the same rhythmic level as the tenor, that voice also has a repeated rhythmic pattern of comparable length to the tenor talea. Taleae may also be reflected in the upper voices, with rhythmically active passages called hocket (see Mary Wolinski's article on the hocket for more information) that appear at the same place in each talea, or even more extensive rhythmic repetition.

The use of such rhythmic patterns as primary structural device has been given the name isorhythm, a term invented by the German scholar Friedrich Ludwig in the early years of the twentieth century. Margaret Bent has criticized the use of this term because it is not always used consistently and because the fact that some scholars have treated it as a defining feature of the motet has sometimes limited our view of the genre, especially as related to works created in England and Italy. Nevertheless, the use of such patterns in the tenor is an important feature of the medieval motet as practiced in France, and those patterns are occasionally made more apparent to the ear through rhythmic repetition in the upper voices, and sometimes even through other means. Melodic repetition is still rare, though it does occur, notably in several works by Machaut, where it often seems to provide audible cues to the motet's talea structure. This occasional interest in enhancing the audiblity of musical structure, however, generally does not extend to text comprehension, though sometimes individual words or phrases are made clear.

In some motets, rhythmic taleae appear first in long note values, then, when the tenor melody repeats, in faster notes through some sort of mensural manipulation, most often by reinterpreting each note value as a shorter one.That is, the singer would read a breve for a written long, a semibreve for a written breve, and so forth--imagine reading a line and mentally changing each whole note to a half note, each half note to a quarter note, etc., therefore performing the line twice as fast. This process, called diminution, does not always lead to a 2:1 reduction in medieval notation, but that is perhaps the easiest type for us to understand. Diminution can make the tenor easier to hear and can provide a rhythmic climax of sorts for the motet. Again, the diminished tenor taleae can be reflected by repeated rhythms in the upper voices.

The most important way in which the fourteenth-century motet appears to differ from most thirteenth-century examples is in the creation and transmission of "works": where the thirteenth-century motet complex is usually a product of several individuals who modify an already-existing piece of music, fourteenth-century motets more often appear to be the result of a single creative act, with one person selecting the chant, creating the talea, and writing both text and music for the upper voices. This can perhaps most easily be seen in the fact that fourteenth-century motets are usually based on poetry with regular line lengths and rhyme schemes, where thirteenth-century motets, betraying their origin as textual additions to already-existing music, tend to be poetically irregular. Once a fourteenth-century motet is created, it is seldom altered in any major way: untexted contratenors are occasionally added, but texted voices almost never. Similarly, texts are not generally replaced, except in a few cases where a secular motet is reborn as a Latin sacred one. A few single voices of fourteenth-century motets appear, but these too are extremely rare, and it cannot always be definitively demonstrated that those voices did in fact appear separately, due to the fragmentary nature of some sources. Basically, apart from surface changes, a fourteenth-century motet, once completed, was largely left alone.

That is not to say, however, that intertextual connections and symbolic play do not exist in the fourteenth-century motet; they are rather practiced between pieces rather than within a single motet complex. Scholars in recent years have explored the relationships between pairs and groups of motets, or between an individual motet and its intertexts, to good effect; one example of this kind of work is the paired essays on Machaut's motet 15 by Kevin Brownlee and Margaret Bent. Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of intertextuality between motets is the group of works that name living musicians: several are linked to chants for the Common of Apostles, and some also exploit symbolism based on the number twelve, even occasionally naming twelve singers, who are therefore implicitly linked to the twelve Apostles evoked in the tenor. Textual and musical structures may be connected, and small melodic motives are sometimes shared. Each motet is linked to at least one other by at least one of these means, and it is clear that this family of motets was created by a group of composers who knew each other's work and were engaged in friendly (we hope) one-upsmanship. Many of these links, whether musical, textual, or numerical, cannot be heard by ear at first hearing. Still, even if only a small group of insiders, along with God, could fully grasp all a motet's subtleties, other audiences could be told of them, or locate them through study, and still others could simply enjoy the kaleidoscopic play of sound.

Another common type of symbolism, especially exploited by Guillaume de Machaut but present in some other motets as well, is the combination of tenor fragments taken from chants for Lent, and especially Holy Week, with upper-voice love complaints. These motets, in a manner strange to many of us today, seem to exploit a connection between the sufferings of Christ on the cross to those of a (usually) male narrator at the hands of his Lady. Anne Walters Robertson has argued that these motets, at least in the context of Machaut's complete-works manuscripts, should be seen as stages of a spiritual journey modeled on that of Henry Suso's Horologium sapientiae. Whether a similar interpretation should be applied to the other motets of this type, or even whether this is the only, or even the primary, impetus behind the creation of Machaut's motets, cannot be determined beyond doubt, but Robertson's reading shows how intertwined the sacred and secular, the devotional and the erotic, were in the medieval mind, and it would seem to be essential to remember that in any interpretation of the medieval motet.

The Motet in England in the Middle Ages

Everything we have seen so far--the use of chant-based tenors, repeated rhythmic patterns, polytextuality, and so forth--is broadly characteristic of the medieval motet as practiced in France, but not as practiced in England or in Italy. As Margaret Bent has pointed out, the French type is often taken as the norm, not least because more examples survive in more sources, including works by such "big-name" composers as Guillaume de Machaut and Philippe de Vitry, while relatively fewer English or Italian motets are extant, and no complete manuscript containing such works survives from before the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, these other motet traditions were important and warrant consideration.

While English composers did produce some examples of motets similar to those created in France, they cultivated a far wider variety of stylistic possibilities, with perhaps a narrower range of subjects. Motets in England use Latin texts, and the vast majority are sacred works, at a time when French motets with Latin upper-voice texts are often hortatory or topical in nature and French amatory texts are also common. Chant tenors may be used, but they are not a defining feature of the motet as a genre, as is generally true in France. Similarly, the structural use of repeated rhythmic patterns or taleae is not as common, though some English motets are built on a pes, a short repeated melodic pattern not based on chant.

Other motet types used in England include single-texted homorhythmic works, pieces that use rondellus or other imitative techniques, and examples that paraphrase chant in the upper voice rather than disposing it more structurally in the tenor. All of these techniques can be seen as broadly influencing fifteenth-century developments on the Continent, but they make it very hard to generalize about the medieval motet in England.

The Motet in Italy in the Middle Ages

The Italian motet in the late middle ages is also different from its French counterpart. Italian motets are not usually based on chant, though like the motet in France the tenor of an Italian motet is usually untexted and generally moves at a slower rhythmic level than the two upper parts. Those upper voices tend not to be stratified, as is often true in France, but they usually share the same range and often a single text as well. Rather than being based on a repeated rhythmic pattern in the tenor, as most French motets and some English motets are, Italian motets may consist of two large rhythmically identical sections; in these pieces the rhythm of the first half is repeated in the second in all parts, not just the tenor, and this technique seems not to have the structural importance talea structures do in France. This repertory consists of works often ceremonial in nature; notable examples include those celebrating Venetian doges. This genre culminates with the motets of Johannes Ciconia, which Bent shows fit the basic features of the Italian motet once the contratenors apparently added by the scribe who copied them are removed.

The End of the Medieval Motet

The motet types described above continue to flourish through the fourteenth century, but in the early fifteenth centuries we begin to see hybrid works that combine characteristics of the Italian motet with those of the French type. This combination is effected mostly by the northern composers who begin to be seen in Italy during this period, especially Guillaume Du Fay, whose great "isorhythmic" motets combine such features as the single upper-voice text and melodic imitation characteristic of the Italian motet with the chant-based tenors and talea structures of the French type. These works, like the fourteenth-century Italian motet, are mostly ceremonial in nature.

Du Fay and his contemporaries are also instrumental in the development and proliferation of another type of motet, one more clearly influenced by English models. Here chant tenors and rhythmic taleae are no longer used, and bitextuality becomes a thing of the past. A single text is treated in a manner more clearly comprehensible and pleasing to the ear, and chant, if it is used at all, is paraphrased in the top voice, keeping its text, rather than structurally disposed in long notes in the lowest (or next-to-lowest) part. Texts are almost always sacred, and in Latin. This is the motet as most singers of our time know it, a genre that perhaps reaches its pinnacle in the works of Josquin des Pres, his contemporaries, and composers of the sixteenth century.

But the medieval motet does not die when the early modern motet is born: Du Fay, as already mentioned, was a major contributor to both genres, and other fifteenth-century composers continued on occasion to write motets with chant tenors and repeated rhythmic taleae, and occasionally with multiple texts. Moreover, the idea of using chant as a structural and symbolic basis for music with other texts continues in the genre of the cyclic Mass Ordinary, which becomes important in the fifteenth century, though the cyclic Mass quickly begins to use secular songs, and later motets, as often as chant as the basis for new works.

Conclusion: What Is a Motet?

Given the period of centuries over which the motet was cultivated in the middle ages, as well as the significant differences between the ways in which the genre was practiced in England, France, and the nation-states of Italy, how can we articulate a single definition for this genre I initially said was so important to medieval culture? The question might be still more complicated by the fact that the index to the Trémouïlle fragment, in a category labeled "motets," includes examples of the chace (a secular genre based on imitation) and Mass Ordinary movements, which we would say are clearly not motets. So what is a motet?

Peter Lefferts has suggested that the use of a stratified texture, where slower-moving lower part/s without text serve as a foundation for faster-moving, texted upper parts, may begin to describe the motet in a way the scribe of the Trémouïlle fragment might understand, since that type of texture is also characteristic of the chace and fourteenth-century Mass movements. (Bent also compares some features of the Italian motet to the caccia, an imitative genre similar to the chace, citing in part a fourteenth-century treatise that does likewise.) That would suggest that, as Bent has argued, bitextuality and chant-based tenors disposed in repeated taleae are indeed not essential to the motet, though those features are in fact present in most examples from medieval France. Such a definition still might not account for all examples from England, though it would describe the Italian motet reasonably well. A definition so broad might not be particularly helpful to scholars, except as a starting-point for more focused consideration of sub-genres based on shorter time periods or specific geographical regions. Ultimately, to the medieval mind, a "motet" may have been what the term itself implies: a piece of music with words that can't be fit into some other category. Such terminological inexactness might distress us, but the medieval mind was clearly used to working with paradox, so perhaps we should leave the question of definition open.


The following focuses on relatively general studies published in English during the last twenty years.

Allsen, J. Michael. "Motet: Medieval." In Reader's Guide to Music: History, Theory, Criticism, ed. Murray Steib, 458-60. Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999. [Mostly a summary of literature in English.]

Allsen, J. Michael. "Style and Intertextuality in the Isorhythmic Motet, 1400-1440." Ph. D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1992. [The basic study of the last flowering of the medieval motet.]

Bent, Margaret. "Deception, Exegesis and Sounding Number in Machaut's Motet 15." Early Music History 10 (1991):15-27. [A companion to Brownlee's article on the same motet, using the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau as an intertext.]

Bent, Margaret. "The Fourteenth-Century Italian Motet." In L'Europa e la musica del Trecento: Congresso IV: Certaldo 1984, ed., 85-125. Certaldo, 1992. [A discussion of this genre through Ciconia's early-fifteenth-century motets.]

Bent, Margaret. "Isorhythm." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, rev. ed., ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. Online edition, ed. by Laura Macy, also available.[Bent shows the origins and limitations of the term.]

Bent, Margaret. "The Medieval Motet." In Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, ed. Tess Knighton and David Fallows, 114-19. New York: Schirmer Books and Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992. [Here she criticizes the over-reliance on concepts such as chant tenors and "isorhythm" in determining definitions on editing and dissemination of examples in our time.]

Brownlee, Kevin."Machaut's Motet 15 and the Roman de la Rose: The Literary Context of Amours qui a le pouoir/Faux Samblant m'a deceu/Vidi Dominum." Early Music History 10 (1991):1-14.[A reading of Machaut's Motet 15 especially as interpreted through the intertext of the Roman de la Rose.See Bent for a companion essay.]

Cumming, Julie E. "The Aesthetics of the Medieval Motet and Cantilena." Historical Performance 7/2 (Fall 1994): 71-83.[A discussion of the various audiences for the medieval motet, with a close reading of a single work designed to prepare a modern audience as she believes a medieval audience would be prepared.]

Cumming, Julie E. "Concord out of Discord: Occasional Motets of the Early Quattrocento." Ph. D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1987. [Along with Allsen's dissertation, the basic study of this material, partially but not entirely superceded by her book below.]

Cumming, Julie E. The Motet in the Age of Dufay. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. [A good introduction to this transitional period and the myriad subgenres of the motet that exist at this time.]

Earp, Lawrence M. Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research. Garland Composer Research Manuals. New York: Garland, 1995. [The essential starting point for any work on this fourteenth-century poet and composer, including the best English-language biography available, current information on the manuscripts in which Machaut's works are transmitted, and a comprehensive bibliography and discography.]

Everist, Mark. French Motets in the Thirteenth Century: Music, Poetry, and Genre. Cambridge Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. [An attempt to create a new, more flexible generic explanation of the motet in terms of interaction between various modes, including the use of preexisting materials such as refrains.]

Huot, Sylvia. Allegorical Play in the Old French Motet: The Sacred and the Profane in Thirteenth-Century Polyphony. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. [Huot, a scholar of medieval French literature, provides a useful study of the possible intersections between sacred and secular in the thirteenth-century motet.]

Kidwell, Susan A. "The Integration of Music and Text in the Early Latin Motet." Ph. D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1993. [This study includes a consideration of the relationship between clausulae and motets and the earliest motets as tropes.]

Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. Compositional Techniques in the Four-Part Isorhythmic Motets of Philippe de Vitry and his Contemporaries. 2 vols. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989. [A reprinted version of part of the author's Ph. D. thesis, focusing on the four-voice motets of Vitry, Machaut, and others. (The rest of the thesis is revised in his book on Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame.)]

Lefferts, Peter M. The Motet in England in the Fourteenth Century. Studies in Musicology 94. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986. [The basic study of this sub-genre.]

Page, Christopher. Discarding Images: Reflections on Music and Culture in Medieval France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. [Page provides a useful corrective against over-emphasis on the intellectual nature of medieval music, though he perhaps protests too much when he argues that scholars continue to be overly influenced by Johann Huizinga's account of the "waning" of the middle ages.]

Robertson, Anne Walters. Guillaume de Machaut and Reims: Context and Meaning in his Musical Works. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. [A magisterial study, arguing that Machaut's motets 1-17 represent, or at least can be read as, a spiritual journey. She also includes readings of Machaut's other motets, as well as his Mass and David Hoquet; an appendix gives motet textsand translations.]

Sanders, Ernest H., and Peter Lefferts. "Motet, §I: Middle Ages." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, rev. ed., ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. Online edition, ed. by Laura Macy, also available. [While perhaps dated by over-reliance on chant and "isorhythm" as generic markers, this is the standard reference source for music and therefore probably the best starting point for further reading.]

To Return to the Contents of this Article:

Top of page | Origins | The Thirteenth- Century Motet | The Fourteenth- Century Motet in France | The Motet in England in the Middle Ages |
The Motet in Italy in the Middle Ages | The End of the Medieval Motet |
Conclusion: What Is a Motet? | Sources

For other ORB Music articles:

visit http://the-orb.net/encyclop/culture/music/musindex.html

Send comments and suggestions to Alice Clark,

Copyright (C) 2004, Alice V. Clark. This file may be copied for educational purposes on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME