The End of Europe's Middle Ages

The Development of the Motet

The art of counterpoint polyphony made its most brilliant start in France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. New forms of the organum developed. One such innovation was the conductus, which provided the musical accompaniment for early liturgical plays. Another new form, the motet, was to become the predominant polyphonic style for the next two centuries.

Although the term quickly came to indicate almost any elaborate polyphonic vocal music, a motet originally referred to a piece in which the accompaniment was superimposed over the main theme (tenor) but had its own text that was different from the tenor. The motet soon acquired third and fourth voices. The added voices were written above the tenor and the upper part, the dessus or superius, was usually the most complex. The quartet was well established by the thirteenth century as providing the ideal combination for singing.

A commentary or paraphrase of the idea expressed by the tenor provides the text for each of the voices in a motet. By the middle of the thirteenth century, however, secular influences created an intriguing innovation in which the upper voices sang a vernacular text while the tenor maintained the liturgical theme. Composers soon began to experiment further in this vein and curious juxtapositions of language, rhythm, and spirit occurred. Examples exist that overlay a religious tenor in Latin with three vernacular texts: a moral maxim, a love song, and a drinking ditty.

Although the motet was the foundation for many future musical forms, it was never a popular genre, its complexities requiring a cultured and trained ear for appreciation. In 1300, Jean de Grouchy, a music theoretician, haughtily claimed that the motet was " not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art."

Return to Music

The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
Copyright © 1998, The Applied History Research Group