Humpty-Dumpty and the motet

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty might well have speaking on behalf of composers over the centuries who have labelled an astonishing variety of pieces ‘motet’. Actually, scarcely any of the standard musical ‘genre’ labels have always meant the same thing: symphony and concerto were very different things for Schütz compared to Mozart, for example. And sometimes one term has meant different things at the same time. An early 18th century trio sonata might require anything from one to four players.

There isn’t even clear agreement about the origin of the term motet. Is it from the Latin movere (move) reflecting the musical independence of the parts, at least in the earlier repertoire, or from the French mot (word), perhaps because early examples often had more than one text being sung at the same time? Either way, the earliest motets (13th century) were some of the very first types of music to be in parts, with one voice singing a quickly moving counter-melody against slower plainchant. The principle quickly infiltrated secular music and in the 14th and early 15th centuries motets were written in which a slow moving melody (which might be sacred in origin) was encircled by up to three other parts which may have separate texts in different languages as well as being governed (especially in their rhythms) by schemes of dizzying mathematical complexity.

It was in the 16th century that the meaning of motet settled down to mean a composition in parts setting a Latin text that was not part of a specific liturgy (though this is rather a grey area). The three marvellous examples by Lassus included in our March programme reflect this ambiguity rather neatly. Laetentur coeli sets a text from the Christmas liturgy – though only in part; Ave verum corpus – a setting in six parts that is every bit as fine as Byrd’s famous setting – is from the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi; and Musica, Dei donum has no known liturgical function.

I’ll have a bit more to say about Schütz and Bach another time. Don’t forget that tickets to Ripieno concerts are cheaper when bought in advance. This is a really good programme (even if I do say so myself) in which our singing will be enhanced by support of The Brook Street Band. Lucky us. Lucky you.

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