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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite
Richard Taruskin

The simplest definition of a motet, in its earliest form, would simply be a texted bit of discant. In its origins, as we may surmise from the genre’s earliest sources, the motet was actually a prosulated bit of discant—discant (by definition melismatic in tenor as well as added voices) to which a syllabic text has been grafted onto the added voice or voices in the manner of a prosula. We can trace the process by returning to a piece already familiar from the previous chapter: the “Ex semine” clausula from the Alleluia Nativitas attributed by Anonymus IV to Perotin.

A transcription of the clausula was included in Ex. 6-5. Figure 7-2a shows the clausula in its original notation, from the Notre Dame manuscript W2. Fig. 7-2b shows the duplum from the same clausula in prosulated form, as it is found in a different fascicle of W2. The syllabic text it now carries is a Latin poem honoring both the Virgin Mary’s birth and that of her son. It opens with a quotation from the text of the Marian Alleluia verse Nativitas at the very point where the clausula begins (Ex semine Abrahe, “from the seed of Abraham”), and closes with a repetition of the word semine. These, along with yet an additional allusion to the Alleluia text, are italicized in the following transcription of the prosula-poem:

Ex semine

From the seed

Abrahe, divino

of Abraham, by divine



Igne pio numine

in the holy fire of your presence,

producis domine,

Lord, you bring forth

Hominis salutem,

the salvation of mankind

Paupertate nuda,

from stark poverty,

Virginis nativitate

by the birth of a Virgin

de tribu Iuda.

from the tribe of Judah.

Iam propinas ovum

And now you proffer an egg

Per natale novum,

for an additional birth,

Piscem, panem dabis,

by which you will give fish and bread

Partu sine semine.

all delivered without seed.

Thus the prosula-poem is a textual interpolation into the canonical chant as well as a potentially self-contained song. It is a gloss on the text of the Alleluia in the manner of a trope, and was probably meant for insertion directly into a performance of the organum. (But note that Fig. 7-2b also contains the tenor, so that the texted clausula can also be performed independently of the chant and its other polyphony.)

Since it is now notated cum littera like the conductus studied at the end of the previous chapter, the duplum can no longer use the first-mode ligatures of the clausula. It is now a motellus (later, and more standardly, a motetus), a “texting” or a “wording” or a “part with words.” The term itself is a curious Latin back-borrowing from French, in which mot is the word for “word.” Anyone actually inserting the motetus into the organum would have to know the rhythms of the clausula by heart. So at this stage a prosulated discant or motet has to be notated twice: once for the tune, again for the text.

Indeed, when motets, freshly weaned from their incubator within the organum, began to be written as new, freestanding pieces of texted music rather than mere textual grafts on existing discants, they still needed at first to be notated twice, syllabically for the words and melismatically for the rhythm. The only reasonable explanation for the extravagant excess of discant clausulae one finds in the Notre Dame sources—as many as two dozen or more for a tenor that might only be sung liturgically once a year—is that many or most of these “clausulae” were actually rhythmic templates to guide the performance of already-composed motets. What this also shows is that one must take care to distinguish between the chronology of genres and that of individual pieces. The fact that the clausula as a genre precedes the motet as a genre in no way implies that any given untexted clausula must have preceded its texted counterpart or counterparts. The latter may indeed be prosulated versions of the former, but the former may just as easily be an aid to assist in performing the latter.

The Nascent Motet

fig. 7-2aEx semine clausula (W2, fols. 16v-17). It begins halfway through the bottom system on the left.

The Nascent Motet

fig. 7-2b Motetus on the same clausula (W2, fol. 146v-147) as in Fig. 7-2a. It begins with the ornate capital E halfway down the left side and ends halfway down the right.

Now compare Fig. 7-3, a page from a later manuscript that contains nothing but motets. It is the same clausula on Ex semine, now given complete, in all three parts. The motetus, or texted duplum shown in Fig. 7-2b occupies the right hand column. Under it is the familiar tenor. Opposite it, in the left column, is the triplum from the clausula (compare Fig. 7-2a), now also outfitted with a text—another text! It is another gloss on the text of the same Alleluia, reflecting and enlarging, like its counterpart, on the marvel of the Virgin’s birth and the miracle of the actual “virgin birth,” that is, her son’s. This triplum text, which begins and ends with the same verbal allusions as the motetus, was explicitly fashioned as a sort of rhetorical double or echo to it:

Ex semine

From the seed

Rosa prodit spine;

of a thorn, a rose comes forth.

Fructus olee

The olive fruit

Oleastro legitur;

Is plucked from the olive tree.

Virgo propagine

A Virgin comes forth

Nascitur Judee.

From Judah’s line.

Stelle matutine

The morning star’s

Radius exoritur

radiance shines forth

Nubis caligine;

from the cloudy gloom;

Radio sol stelle;

The sun, from the star’s ray;

Petra fluit melle

A stone flows with honey;

Parit flos puelle

A flower of maidenhood gives birth

Verbum sine semine.

to the Word, without seed.

The Nascent Motet

fig. 7-3 Double motet on Ex semine (Bamberg, Staatliche Bibliothek, Lit. 115, fols. 15v-16). The triplum and motetus voices are notated side by side (note the capital initial E’s). The tenor is beneath the motetus (to its left is the end of the tenor for the preceding motet).

Our piece is now a doubly prosulated clausula, more commonly known as a double motet. (Ex. 7-1 is a transcription of it.) And that is both the fascination and the enigma of the medieval motet. In its developed form, the one Grocheio knew and loved, the genre was “polytextual,” which is to say it had as many texts as it had voices over the Gregorian tenor. Before we get any deeper into the question of polytextuality, however, there is another matter, also well illustrated in Fig. 7-3, to investigate.

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. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007002.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007002.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007002.xml