The Motet

General Lifespan

Originally, motet was Roman Catholic church music with Latin biblical text sung in two parts, one of which was taken from Gregorian Chant (they just spiced up the rhythm to make the chant more 'hip').

It seems nothing can live for more than 5 centuries without some people getting it in their heads that 'change would be good'. First came the French, who figured it would be a hoot if they replaced the Latin church text with dirty lyrics. These 'specially altered' motets never really caught on in church. And so was born the secular (non-religious) motet.

Near 1400, a new musical revolution hit called the Ars Nova (New Art). The motet was hit pretty hard, but it stayed afloat (with a few minor alterations). The Gregorian Chant basis was dropped, and it generally got longer and more complex.

Enter the Flemms - who rescued the motet from the French doom. Religious text was reinstated, and it moved back into church (this time taking a back seat to the mass). Oh, yeah - it got even longer and even more complex.

Now (1600) we're up to 6 parts - and long enough to be divided into 2 or 3 sections. But we are religious (again), and still only vocal. But another new musical movement is around the corner...

Baroque changes to the motet included new languages for text, added instruments for accompaniment, and use of solo vocalists for confusion.

The motet then died (give or take) along with the Baroque movement, and J.S. Bach himself* in 1750. And few people have cared about it since.

Composers of Motets
Machaut, DuFay, Dunstable, Lasso, Palestrina, Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart

The motet lived a long life, and in the end it in no way resembled itself.

* Bach had a provision in his will that if he died in a round year that everyone could remember (1750 at age 65, or 1800 at age 115) the current musical movement would be interred with him, and the world would have to find a new movement because Bach (being the musical god that he was) had probably evolved all the music of the current style to its highest possible existence and no one should even bother writing any more.

Highly interesting Post Script!

The word motet comes from the Latin motetus meaning movement. When two or more parts move in different ways the piece is called a motet. It has nothing to do with lyrics: there are numerous instrumental motets - or the fact that a piece is religious - there are numerous secular pieces. The very first usually called round 'Summer is icomen' is not a round, it's a motet.

I know almost all history books tell you differently. They're wrong.


Paul Delcour