A musical term of French origin, generally applied to a vocal, or vocal and instrumental, work with a Latin text intended for church use. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, secular and political motets also were extensively cultivated, and the term fell somewhat into disrepute, though not disuse, for titles such as Sacrae cantiones vulgo motecta appellatae are occasionally encountered. In its earliest stages the motet was a verbal trope of the clausula (the short melisma in the chant Gradual or Alleluia)—words (mots ) carefully underlaid to the hitherto vocalized duplum (second voice part). The duplum later changed its name to motetus. When a third or fourth voice was added to the existing tenor and duplum, it might sing the same text as the motetus (conductus-motet), or each voice might have a separate text. Two or three texts could be sung simultaneously without incurring practical or aesthetic objections, since the various texts were usually related to each other as well as to the feast for which the composition was intended. The tenor, whose rhythm was usually less lively than that of the
upper parts, was often provided with a syllable or word indicating the source of the chant, and therefore the organum as a whole.
Although in the 13th century the early motet was at its peak as a genuine and expressive embellishment of the liturgy, it was then also that the substitution of French secular texts for the Latin took place. By mid-century the top voice part tended to predominate because of its deliberately attractive melodic interest (Franconian style), showing the way for the more advanced methods of Petrus de Cruce, Philippe de Vitry, and Guillaume de Machaut, all of whom wrote political as well as liturgical motets. From the short-winded ordines, or rhythmic schemes for the tenor, the concept of isorhythm slowly developed, reaching a perfect, though by no means final, stage of technique in the motets of Machaut. Originally applied to the tenor only, isorhythm later pervaded all voice parts in certain motets, so that they were melodically independent but rhythmically bound to a recurring pattern called talea. Some relaxing of this strict compositional discipline came with the motets of Guillaume Dufay and John Dunstable, whose example was influential for a considerable part of the 15th century. At this time it was not unusual to find the plainsong, skillfully decorated, in the highest voice, supported by two independent instrumental parts.
The growth of choral polyphony caused a further change in the career of the motet. Texture became much richer, progressing from density to radiance in the works of Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Desprez. Their music, known throughout Europe, set a standard of taste and technique that was to usher in the greatest era of the choral motet, culminating in the vast production of Lasso, Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria, and their contemporaries. Most of their texts were still liturgical, but some composers preferred psalm verses and other Biblical texts occasionally brought together for special reasons. Ceremonial motets for great occasions of church and state continued to emerge from time to time, and a growing interest in instrumental support can be sensed toward the end of the 16th century. The Roman composers remained faithful to the unaccompanied choral motet well into the baroque era, while the Venetians (notably G. Gabrieli and Monteverdi) were boldly experimenting in instrumentation, spatial separation of choirs, and new effects of every kind (stile concitato ). Lully, Charpentier, and Couperin brought the choralorchestral motet to its zenith in France; Schütz, Buxtehude, and Bach gave to Germany a rich heritage of solo and choral motets. From the 17th century onwards, the term motet came to be applied mainly to non-liturgical musical settings of religious texts. With the end of the Baroque period, the motet became less prominent as a distinctive genre of church music.