Dufay and the Late Medieval Ceremonial Motet

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Dufay and the Late Medieval Ceremonial Motet

Music for Special Occasions.

In addition to its role as the leading format for new and creative experiments, in the fourteenth century the motet expanded its prominence as the composition of choice for the most important occasions. From its origin it was written with a particular function in mind; the form had the flexibility of being appropriate in both sacred and secular settings, and, as the accepted vehicle for the most avant-garde experiments as well as the most sophisticated technical devices, it was suitably elegant to commemorate even the most special affair. From the mid-fourteenth century, a dedicatory or ceremonial motet was the logical form to be adopted by composers who were called upon to set texts celebrating events such as coronations of kings, weddings of nobles, elevation of cardinals, or other such monumental occasions, both sacred and secular.

Nuper rosarum flores.

One such special occasion that called for a ceremonial motet was the dedication of one of the finest cathedrals in Italy. Guillaume Dufay's motet Nuper rosarum flores (Recently Roses Blossomed), written for the consecration of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral in Florence, deservedly has become one of the most celebrated compositions of the late Middle Ages. It is a musical masterpiece and exhibits the kinds of sophisticated techniques that were employed by composers to mark such important ceremonies. New construction for the Cathedral of Florence was begun around the year 1300 as an expansion of the older and much smaller Church of Santa Reparata. Construction continued throughout the fourteenth century but could not be completed until the architect Filippo Brunelleschi was able to work out a design for the enormous dome. When this work was finally done, Pope Eugenius IV presided over the consecration of the cathedral on 25 March 1436, with Dufay, Brunelleschi, and numerous other dignitaries in attendance. Dufay's motet to honor the occasion is an excellent example of the kind of sophistication that was built into both the text and music in these symbolic works.

Text and Melody.

The tenor of Nuper rosarum is appropriately chosen from the antiphon for the consecration of a church, Terribilis est locus iste—"Redoubtable is this place," referring to the unholiness of the edifice prior to its consecration to God. The text of the upper two voice parts is a Latin poem in four stanzas that was written specifically for the occasion; it refers to the dedication of the cathedral and the city of Florence, mentions Pope Eugenius as the successor of Jesus Christ and Saint Peter, and makes allusions to the Temple of Jerusalem erected by King Solomon. The musical construction is for four voices in four sections that do not coincide with the text stanzas; each section moves at a different pace. The two upper voice parts—the only parts with text—have a continuous flow of melody without repetition. They trace separate rhythmic patterns and do not sing the same words at the same time except for the name of the pope, "Eugenius," which is also set off from the surrounding material by sustained notes. The lower two parts are in strict isorhythm, having a single melody that is repeated for each of the four sections. These two parts—called "tenor I" and "tenor II"—have the same melody, but are performed at different pitches and do not begin or end at the same time. They are written out only once with the four different tempos indicated by mensural signs (see canons above).

Symbolic Ratios.

The construction of the motet and its text also incorporates some complex symbolism involving references to the Temple of Solomon that are present in the text and represented in the proportions and ratios of the musical construction; Dufay's tempos for the four sections of the motet are in the ratio 6:4:2:3, which match the dimensions of Solomon's Temple, given in the Bible (I Kings 6:1–20) as 60 x 40 x 20 x 30. Nuper rosarum flores is a classic assembly of medieval motet techniques, incorporating the complex musical features as well as the sophisticated textual and symbolic ingredients that mark this form throughout the late Middle Ages.


Julie E. Cumming, The Motet in the Age of Dufay (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

David Fallows, Dufay. Rev. ed. (London: J. M. Dent, 1987).

Reinhard Strohm, The Rise of European Music, 1380–1500 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Craig Wright, "Dufay's Nuper Rosarum Flores, King Solomon's Temple, and the Veneration of the Virgin," Journal of the American Musicological Society 47 (1994): 395–441.