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Motet Development

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The motet was one of the most important forms of polyphonic music from 1250 to 1750. The Italian mottetto was originally a profane polyphonic species of music, the air, or melody, being in the Tenor clef, taking the then acknowledged place of the canto fermo or plainchant, theme. It originated in the 13th century resulting from the practice of Pйrotin and his contemporaries in Paris. The term "motet" can be translated as "the word of movement". Sometimes two upper voices had different words. In the beginning, Latin texts involving topics of the Virgin Mary were used. Later, French secular pieces became common due to the fact that the motet terminated its connection with church and liturgy.

Between the years 1390 and 1435, Dunstable Power produced polyphonic motets that are still worthy of attention. Dunstables "Quam Pulchra Es" is a three-part motet. It concludes with an Alleluia being far in advance of any similar work during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. It exemplified a genuinely artistic style.

Equally beautiful are the motets of Lionel Power, the manuscripts of which are at Vienna, Bologna, and Modena. One of his happiest efforts is a four-part motet in which the treatment is peculiarly melodious and of an Irish flavor.

During the late 13th century, motets with tenors sharing similar rhythms with the upper voices became possible. Several motet types blossomed in France, but reduction in diversity occurred because of the acclaimed works of Philippe de Vitry, who died Bishop of Meaux. He wrote a work entitled "Ars Compositionis de Motetis", the date of which was probably 1320. This volume (now in the Paris Bibliothиque Nationale) contains our oldest specimens of sacred motets, and these continued to set trends for over two centuries.

Machaut's motets also showcased a preference for French texts. Guillaume de Machaut used isorhythm in the tenor and occasionally the upper parts as well. His signature became increasingly common in the late 14th century along with rhythmic refinements. Many complex motets of this sort can now be found in English and French sources of the late 14th century and early 15th century. Although he wrote music for more than one hundred of his French poems, and even for half a dozen motets in Latin, Machaut remains best-known for his Mass of Notre Dame. This mass was written as part of the commemoration of the Virgin endowed by the Machaut brothers at Rheims, and was intended for performance in a smaller setting by specialized soloists. The most striking aspect of the piece is not simply the high quality of the contrapuntal writing, but the architectural unity of the Ordinary sections as well. Machaut's mass was not the earliest surviving mass cycle, however it was the earliest by a single composer and indeed the earliest to display this degree of creativity.

Guillaume Dufay, in his 14 isorhythmic motets, achieved a magnificent synthesis of numerically constructed cantus firmus polyphony with the new techniques that hastened its decline. A cantus firmus is a melody to which one or more contrapuntal parts are added. It is traditionally written in alto clef and often begins and ends on the tonic of the key or the final of the mode. The penultimate note may be the note a step above the tonic or final.

Dufay, who was a Walloon, composed numerous motets, including "Salve Virgo", "Flos forum", "Alma Redemptoris", and "Ave Regina caelorum". He spent the majority of his career in Cambria. He joined a choir with fifteen to twenty other members, originally. As the years passed, members, including Dufay, moved to other choirs for money and other such reasons. Guillaume Dufay was a chief figure of music schools because of his completion of education as a choir master, as well as being very well-educated in most aspects of music. Guillaume Dufay was the first composer to use a folk song in mass. Thus, he requested that the last named exquisite composition be sung by the altar boys and choristers of Cambrai cathedral at his death-bed.

With the gradual departure of isorhythm after 1420, composers started returning to the liturgical and religiously devotional contexts which gave the motet its original boost. Artists used a variety of newer principles and techniques, utilizing mostly Marian texts and combining vocal and instrumental pairs of voices. For three-part song motets, Guillaume Dufay utilized a treble-dominated texture derived from the chanson which is a lyrical composition of French words. More specifically, it is a French polyphonic song of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Johannes Brasart, a Walloon like Dufay, whose name appears among the pontifical singers in 1431, composed motets, including a four-part "Fortis cum quevis actio" and a critically acclaimed "Ave Maria". The next generation of composers included Johannes Ockeghem and Antoine Busnois. Okeghem was a priest, and was principal chaplain to Charles VII of France and, to Louis XI, canon and treasurer of St. Martins at Toursbeing. His motet, "Alma Redemptoris", displays much contrapuntal ingenuity, and he also wrote a motet for thirty-six voices, probably performed by six choirs of six voices each.

Binchois, a native of Flanders left some three-part motets. They include "Beata Dei Genitrix", but the treatment of his works today is strictly referential, and some say that his works cannot at all be compared to the works of Dunstable Power or Dufay. He died in 1460. Like Dufay, he was a priest and canon of Mons.

The motet built on a tenor cantus firmus became important to the art once again. Four to six parts became the norm. Even though Ockeghem and Busnois made their mark, the major key figure in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was Josquin Desprez. His early motets all maintained the traditional styles, but his observations of the cantus firmus and canon techniques gave way to imitative counterpoint, with homophonic writing to provide variety and text illustration. Josquin was the greatest composer of the high Renaissance. He was very inventive and profound in expression. Much of his music cannot be dated, however, his first period is characterized by melismatic counterpoint

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