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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 motets examined thus far, all of them deriving from a specific clausula-protoype, demonstrate the descent of the motet from the liturgical repertory of Notre Dame. That is only half the story, though. A glance at another texting of the same Ex semine clausula will suggest the other half. Figure 7-4, allowing for the minor copying variants one must expect to find when comparing manuscripts, is musically identical to Fig. 7-3. The appearance of the notation, of course, is altogether different, but that difference should not mislead us. Since it comes from a Notre Dame source (our old friend W2), the notation in Fig. 7-4 is pre-mensural. The motetus and triplum are laid out in score (although the tenor is now entered separately, to save space, as in Fig. 7-3), and the notes are graphically undifferentiated as to rhythm. But by now we know that the intended rhythm is the same one represented in modal notation in Fig. 7-2a and mensural notation in Fig. 7-3.

Confluence of Traditions

fig. 7-4 French motet, Se j’ai ame/EX SEMINE (W2, fols. 136-136v). The triplum and motetus, sung to the same words, are vertically aligned. The tenor occupies the last two lines of music before the capital M that marks the beginning of the next motet.

The real difference between Fig. 7-3 and Fig. 7-4, and it is a huge one, is a matter not of notes but of text. A different text to be sung to the same tune is called a contrafactum (or, in anglicized form, a “contrafact”). This particular contrafact involves a change not only of words but of language. The Ex semine clausula has been effectively transformed into a French song for two voices over a vocalized or instrumental tenor. Its text, skillfully modeled to fit the irregular phrases of the original clausula, is as follows:

Se j’ai amé

If I have loved

N’en doi estre blasmé

I should not be blamed,

Quant sui assené

Since I am pledged

A la plus cortoise riens

To the fairest little

de Paris la cité

creature in Paris town.

Onques en mon vivant

Never in my life, though,

N’en ai un biau semblant

Has she given me so much as a friendly glance,

Si est a touz fors (qu’)à moi

Yet to all but me she is

franche et humiliant;

openhearted and meek.

Mes s’ele seust de voir

If only she could see

Cum je l’aim sanz decevoir,

How guilelessly I love her,

Ele m’ostast de doulor

She would take away my pain

Qu’ele me dounast s’amor

By giving me her love.

Allowing for a bit of urbanization (“Paris town”), this is a trouvère poem in all but name. Indeed, at the point where we left it in chapter 4, we may recall, the trouvère chanson tradition was in the process of transplantation from its original abode in the aristocratic countryside to the towns of northern France. The new motet genre was its destination. It became the primary site for the production of French “literary song” in the late thirteenth century.

The motet in French was thus an interesting hybrid, crossbred from two exceedingly disparate strains. “We can imagine a schema,” Richard Crocker deftly observes, “in which music from the monastery [that is, organum] converges on the cathedral, hence on the town, from one side; and music from the court [that is, the chanson] converges on the town, hence on the cathedral, from the other. They meet at the residences of the cathedral nobility.”6 If that seems a bit too schematic, since it casts the music, rather than the people who use it, in an active role, we can re-imagine the situation in more human terms. Let us imagine, then, that city-dwelling clerics (such as Johannes de Grocheio), who would have known and valued both the urbanized chanson and the prosulated discant, would have been the ones most apt to crossbreed the two and arrive at a new music that pleased them particularly. The great value of Crocker’s formulation is that it emphasizes the co-responsibility of the courtly and the cathedral genres and their respective milieux for the birth and, especially, the rapid growth of the motet.

Again we need to be cautious when it comes to questions of priority and concordances. (A concordance is the reappearance of music or text in a new place.) Just as we cannot assume that a given clausula is older than a musically concordant motet just because historically the clausula came first, so we cannot assume that when a motet exists with texts both in Latin (sacred) and in French (secular), that the French must be the contrafact just because sacred music has the longer recorded history, or because measured rhythm was first notated in church. In the case of motets based on the Ex semine clausula, it is easy to make the false assumption, since all of them go back to a known Latin sacred prototype in modal rhythm. But as we have already seen, the French motet in Fig. 7-4 comes from an earlier source than the Latin one in Fig. 7-3 and uses an earlier method of notation.

Also of possible significance is the fact that the French motet is not a double motet. Its one text is evidently meant to be sung by the two upper voices in rhythmic unison. Take away the tenor and such a homorhythmic, syllabically texted piece would be called a conductus. So motets in which two voices sing a single text against a tenor have for that reason been christened “conductus motets,” and are presumed to be early. It is modern scholars, however, who have done both the christening and the presuming. And a presumption, by definition, lacks supporting evidence.

The evidence does not allow us to state that the Latin motet was invented before the French. Only “common sense,” our knowledge of early prosula technique, and our conjectures about the new genre’s possible liturgical use support the Latin-first idea. On the other side of the scale there is the source evidence. The earliest sources for motets in French are actual trouvère manuscripts, such as the huge Manuscrit du Roi that was mentioned in chapter 4. It was put together between 1246 and 1254, which may actually be a bit earlier than the date of W2, and no later than Fb, which seems to contain the earliest surviving Latin-texted motets.

There are even a few French pieces called “motet” in the Manuscrit du Roi that, being monophonic, are not related to the Notre Dame clausula at all. Like polyphonic motets they are written in mensural notation and are without sectional repeats. Like late trouvère chansons, on the other hand, some of them make use of “refrains”—the short, endlessly recycled verbal/musical tags or “hooks” we encountered in chapter 4. One of these monophonic motets quotes as a tag of this kind the refrain of Adam de la Halle’s little rondeau Bone amourete, already familiar to us as Ex. 4-6. In the motet (Ex. 7-3), the refrain is split up, and the whole rest of the poem is inserted between its two halves:

Bone amourete m’a soupris

Good love has caught me off guard

D’amer bele dame de pris,

and made me love a prized beauty,

Le cors agent et cler le vis.

Comely of form and fair of face.

Et por s’amour trai grant esmai,

And for love of her I pay dearly,

Et ne por quant je l’amerai.

However much I love her.

Tant con vivrai de fin cuer vrai.

Nevertheless I will I live with fine true heart,

Car l’esperance que j’ai

for the hope I have

De chanter tous jours

of singing all the while

me tient gai.

keeps me gay.

Confluence of TraditionsConfluence of Traditions

ex. 7-3 Paris, BN 844 (“Manuscrit du Roi”), interpolation no. 8, transcribed by Judith Peraino

Stanzas inserted within refrains like this were a distinct genre, called motet enté (“spliced” or “grafted motet”), and they were quickly assimilated to the polyphonic motet genre as it grew. The monophonic origins of the genre within the late trouvère repertory, however, should keep us from assuming that the motet is a polyphonic genre by definition. It is, rather, a hybrid genre, the product of multiple crossbreedings from various parent genres, both monophonic and polyphonic, both courtly and ecclesiastical.


(6) Richard Crocker, “French Polyphony of the Thirteenth Century,” in R. Crocker and D. Hiley, eds., The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. II (2nd ed., Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 639.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007004.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007004.xml