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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite

The Thirteenth-Century Motet

CHAPTER 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The rise of the university produced a new class, emanating from Paris, of literati: urban clerics with secular educations who were put to work as administrators on behalf of the universities themselves, on behalf of the increasingly feudalized church hierarchy (sometimes called the “cathedral nobility”), and above all on behalf of the burgeoning civitas, the secular state. The University of Paris, as one historian has put it, became “the training-ground for Europe’s bureaucrats.” This class found a musical spokesman in a university magister named Johannes de Grocheio (sometimes gallicized informally as “Jean de Grouchy”), the author, around 1300, of a remarkable treatise variously called Ars musicae (“The art of music”) or De musica (“About music”).1

What makes this treatise remarkable is its worldly bent. It contains neither cosmic speculation nor nuts-and-bolts theory nor guide to notation. Instead, it offers a survey of “the music which men in Paris use,” classified according to “how men in Paris use it.” It is, in effect, the first sociological treatise on music, in which musical genres are defined primarily in terms of their “class” affiliations. It is a potential goldmine of information for students of music history.

But it can only serve us in that way if its ore is properly refined. Like any theoretical treatise, it should be handled with care and with a certain skepticism. Its ostensibly descriptive content should be scrutinized with an eye out for covert prescription, and its explicit social content should be considered in relation to its implicit social content—namely, its author’s own tacit but all-important social perspective.

Chapter 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite

fig. 7-1 Professor lecturing at the University of Paris (from “Les Grandes Chroniques,” an early fifteenth-century historical manuscript now at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).

The first of these interpretive tasks is not all that difficult in the case of Grocheio’s survey, because many of his social classifications are quite plainly prescriptive, and his prescriptions all serve a purpose he specifies without any undue reticence. That purpose is “leading all things to a good order” in the interests of social stability. His description of how various types of music are used, then, is really a description of how various types of music ought to be used. All the genres of music that we have encountered thus far are given not so much an actual as an ideal place in what is less a realistic than a utopian depiction of social harmony.

Thus epic songs (chansons de geste), for example, ought to be provided, Grocheio says, “for old men, working citizens, and for average people when they rest from their accustomed labor, so that, having heard the miseries and calamities of others, they may more easily bear up under their own, and go about their tasks more gladly,” and without threatening the peace with any newfangled notions about social justice.2 “By these means,” Grocheio adds, “this kind of music has the power to protect the whole state.” The philologist and music historian Christopher Page has found some striking parallels for this passage in sermons by Parisian churchmen who, while basically rejecting the music of minstrels as a “low” or sensual pleasure, nevertheless conceded its utility in mitigating the sadness of human life and enabling men to bear their lot without protest.3 (For the same reason, he notes, some medieval churchmen were even “prepared to countenance prostitution within the civitas as a measure to preserve public order.”)

For an example at the other end of the social spectrum, Grocheio says that cantus coronatus (by which he means the kind of trouvère songs that competed for prizes) are ordained among kings and nobles in order to “move their souls to audacity and bravery, to magnanimity and liberality,”4 qualities that also keep society running smoothly. Lower types of secular song, namely those with refrains, are meant for “the feasts of the vulgar,” where they serve a similar edifying purpose, but more artlessly.

The chant, and its polyphonic offspring, the organum, “is sung in churches or holy places for the praise of God and reverence of His high place.” Even dance music has its assigned place in a well-ordered polity, for it “excites the soul of man to move ornately” and in its more artful forms it “makes the soul of the performer and also the soul of the listener pay close attention and frequently turns the soul of the wealthy from depraved thinking.”

So despite Grocheio’s disavowal of all interest in metaphysics and his insistence that he meant only to describe music in the world he knew, his account of it is quite consistent with that of Plato, the greatest of all utopians and idealists. For both of them, music was above all a social regulator, a means for organizing and controlling society. As Page emphasizes, “Grocheio belonged to the class which supplied princes with their advisers and provided the whole of France with the principal agents and beneficiaries of bureaucratic power.”5 Indeed, his treatise reads like nothing so much as musical advice to a prince, of a kind that we now (after the greatest and most cynical of princely advisers) call “Machiavellian.”

The one part of Grocheio’s treatise that does have a realistic ring, and which can be taken as truly descriptive, is the part devoted to the music of Grocheio’s own class, the music he knew best and valued most. It was a new sort of music, one that we have not encountered as yet. Johannes de Grocheio was the preeminent social theorist of the medieval motet.


(1) An English translation is available: Johannes de Grocheio, Concerning Music, trans. Albert Seay (2nd ed., Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music Press, 1974).

(2) Grocheio, Concerning Music, trans. Seay, p. 16.

(3) See Christopher Page, The Owl and the Nightingale: Musical Life and Ideas in France, 1100–1300 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 19–25.

(4) Grocheio, Concerning Music, trans. Seay, p. 16.

(5) Page, The Owl and the Nightingale, p. 172.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 3 Mar. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 3 Mar. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-007.xml