Motets and Canons

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Motets and Canons

The Motet: A New Favorite Form.

The motet, which originated in the early thirteenth century, quickly grew to be one of the most important of the new polyphonic inventions. Through the final three centuries of the Middle Ages it became the form of choice for composers who were looking to experiment with techniques, to extend the boundaries of form, harmony, and interrelationship among the parts, and to try new ideas in notation. From its inception it was intended to mark a particular occasion, and this emphasis continued to grow, as did the size of the compositions themselves. The technique of motet writing itself came about as a natural extension of the substitute clausula practice. When composing a new upper part for the chant section, instead of duplicating the text of the lower voice part, the composer would add a new text for the new part. The name motet is a Latinized form of the French word "mot," meaning "word," referring to the additional set of words. In the earliest examples, the added text was related to the text of the original part, glossing or amplifying the sentiment. This can be seen as analogous to the trope tradition (see above), except that instead of interrupting the original text with the new commentary, it was sung simultaneously.

Motet Forms and Variations.

The most common format for a motet throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was three voice parts: two new upper melodies composed above a borrowed (that is, preexisting) melody in the lowest voice. The lowest voice, the one borrowed from a chant (or later, from another composition) was referred to as the tenor, from the Latin tenere meaning "to hold," referring back to organum in which the chant notes were slowed down—that is, "held out" for a longer duration. The next voice was called alto, meaning "high," and the highest was the soprano, from the Italian sopra, meaning "above." Shortly after its invention in the early thirteenth century, composers began to experiment with the motet, and the form quickly took on a number of different genre and variations. From its rather humble and subservient beginning as an addition to a chant section, the motet quickly became a completely independent composition that could be substituted for chants in certain places within the liturgy, for example at the Communion. At first the lowest part, the tenor, was usually chosen from an existing sacred source, and the text of the added part was related to that of the tenor. But many motets were designed for performance outside of the liturgy, some obviously intended for a secular setting. In these, the tenor was not necessarily from a sacred source, nor were the added texts in Latin; the vernacular (that is, the language of the region) could also be used. And the subject matter of the new texts, even for those built on sacred tenors, is sometimes on decidedly earthy topics. This was music for an educated class who reveled in the sophistication of the subtle cross-references among the texts as well as their harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic interplay.


introduction: A puzzle canon is an example of the kind of intellectual "games" that were often employed by composers during the late Middle Ages. In the example here, "Agnus dei" from the Missa L'Homme armé, the symbol at the extreme left of the staff lines is a clef sign marking F on the middle line, and the vertical grouping of four symbols immediately before the beginning of the music on the top line corresponds to the four parts that will be sung. The musicians would "solve" the puzzle by following the markings at the beginning of the music, which direct them to sing the same melody at four different speeds and pitches, turning it into a four-part composition. The result for the opening section is transcribed on the facing page.

Complexities and Puzzles.

The motet was usually singled out as a format for introducing complexities of melody, rhythm, and tempo into compositional structures. The initial idea of simultaneous sets of words that played on one another suggested to the composers that such intellectual "games" could be extended to the actual construction of the music as well. The most interesting and long lasting of these techniques is known as isorhythm, a device in which a particular rhythmic sequence is chosen more or less arbitrarily and the melody is then sung in the chosen rhythmic sequence, repeating the rhythm exactly throughout the composition. Refinements and variations involve whether or not the rhythmic sequence coincides with the length of the melodic phrases, and how many voice parts of any one composition are set in isorhythm. One of the most spectacular displays of the isorhythmic technique can be found in the four-voice motet Veni sancte Spiritus–Veni Creator Spiritus by John Dunstaple. The composer writes all four voice parts in different isorhythmic patterns that do not coincide with the melodic material, and then further complicates the structure by speeding up the pace of each section of the piece by means of tempo signs based on a mathematical ratio. The imposition of such strict formal devices has the potential of stifling artistic creativity, but in the hands of a skillful composer like Dunstaple, the product is as much a musical triumph as it is a technical tour-de-force.


Another compositional device on the level of an intellectual game, applied to polyphonic music, was canon (canon = rule), which required the performers to solve a puzzle presented either in words or in symbols in order to perform the composition, only part of which was actually written down. The written form provided cryptic directions for deriving an added part from what was already on the page. "Cry without ceasing," for example, the only direction given on one such composition, results in the addition of a complete second part if one singer performs only the notes but not the rests, while another singer performs the line exactly as written, including its rests. On a similar level are the compositions written as only a single part with several different symbols indicating tempo (known as mensural signs), which will yield a polyphonic composition when the piece is performed simultaneously at different pitches and speeds. In the "puzzle canon" illustration, the mensural signs indicate that the melody should be sung in the following manner (the first note is to begin where the sign itself is located).

The uppermost part NA begins on high D, and proceeds in duple time.

The next part ○ begins on G, and proceeds in triple time.

The next part NA3 begins on lower D (the actual notated pitch), and proceeds in a faster triple time.

The bottom part NA begins on low G, and proceeds in a slow duple time.

Rounds and Catches.

Other musical forms also employed the device of canon in performance, although not usually as complicated as those used in the motet. The most obvious of these is the "round" format, in which a single line of music is marked for successive beginnings in the manner of the well-known "Frère Jacques" or "Three Blind Mice." A variation of this is found in the fourteenth-century repertory of both France and Italy, known as chace (French), or caccia (Italian). The word literally refers to a hunt, but thinly veiled beneath a superficially naive text, it always has an erotic double meaning. Because the second voice enters later than the first but starts at the beginning, the singers are always at different places in the same text and melody. The composer cleverly constructs the melodic line so that words from one line are interspersed among those of another, producing a completely new meaning, and one that cannot be seen by merely viewing the text itself. These are quite entertaining to hear, many of them containing onomatopoeic sounds such as dogs barking or trumpets sounding. The English "catch" of the seventeenth century is related to this form.


Andrew Hughes, Style and Symbol: Medieval Music: 800–1453 (Ottawa: Institute of Mediaeval Music, 1989).

Reinhard Strohm and Bonnie J. Blackburn, eds., Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages. The New Oxford History of Music 3.1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jeremy Yudkin, Music in Medieval Europe (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989).