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What is a motet?

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 Jen
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It seems to escape definition. All motets are settings of words, but beyond that?

The words may be in latin (or any other language); sacred (or secular); sung by solo voices (or choirs, or a mixture of both); sung unaccompanied (or with continuo, or full instrumentation); with instrumental interludes (although generally not); and on a small (or much larger) scale.   There may even be examples of motets that are not settings of words?

Perhaps we should let the motets speak for themselves.

Do you have a favourite?


   
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(@jchokey)
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Posted by: @jen

It seems to escape definition. All motets are settings of words, but beyond that?

Part of the challenge, I think, is that the meaning of 'motet' is historical and has varied and expanded over time.  I think the term probably had a much more specific use in the late middle ages.  

For what it's worth, OED defines 'motet' as:   "A short vocal composition, esp. a polyphonic piece for liturgical use or for setting a religious text. In early use also more generally: †a melody, a song (obsolete). Also in extended use."

I can't help but note that this OED entry acknowledges multiple varied uses, but lumps them all together into a single definition, rather than splitting them up, as I normally expect from OED entries.   It also ends with "in extended use" which means something to the effect of "also used broadly/inexactly/metaphorically" but doesn't elaborate on what specific extended usages.  This strikes me as a bit of a cop-out on the OED's part, but maybe the lexicographer who did this one wasn't a music buff.  Or maybe they felt that going into those was too technical?  


   
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(@jchokey)
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According to Wikipedia the English musicologist Margaret Bent has written, "'a piece of music in several parts with words' is as precise a definition of the motet as will serve from the 13th to the late 16th century and beyond."


   
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The Encyclopedia Britannia definition wraps it all up into an amorphous cloud: motet, (French mot: “word”), style of vocal compositionthat has undergone numerous transformations through many centuries. Typically, it is a Latin religious choralcomposition, yet it can be a secular composition or a work for soloist(s) and instrumental accompaniment, in any language, with or without a choir.

I was introduced to motets at school, when our chamber choir sang Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude. It’s still my favourite motet of all. I also loved singing double motets including those by Bach and Schütz when I was at university.


   
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 Jen
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Bach’s setting of Jesu Meine Freude is among my favourites too.  There are many excellent recordings, but I have a particular soft spot for this one:

https://app.idagio.com/recordings/29323189


   
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That's a difficult one, @Jen?! Indeed, what "exactly" is a motet? 🤔

I've always thought of motets in terms of sacred music: religious or scriptural text [usually] sung in polyphony, or with instrumental accompaniment as in the Baroque era.

I find this article informative, if a bit too succinct:

https://www.classical-music.com/features/articles/what-motet/

 

My favourite motets have to be, of course, those of Handel's, sometimes collectively known as the Latin Motets, beautifully demonstrated in this recording:

https://app.idagio.com/albums/1dad9f98-ed1d-4886-85a6-b4261d9a76e3

(I especially like the Dulcis Amor Jesu Care aria!!)

 

I also absolutely love Josquin Des Prez's Miserere Mei, especially this performance:

https://music.apple.com/eg/album/miserere-mei-deus/1561293210?i=1561293211&ls

 

And, Palestrina, anyone ?! 🤔


   
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 Jen
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Thanks, Dinah, I wasn’t familiar with these Handel Latin Motets and they are lovely… and rather different to the form we generally associate with motets.

Returning to Bach, and a live performance I’ll never forget of Komm, Jesu Komm by the Monteverdi Choir at the Aldeburgh Festival a few years ago.  The acoustic in the main hall there is wonderful.  And that opening “Komm” was so perfectly enunciated, with perfect intonation, it was perhaps the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.

In the same series of concerts was a performance of a seventh motet (probably) by J.S.Bach.  This tiny motet, Ich Lasse Dich Nicht BWVAnh 159, is deeply moving.  It had been long been re-attributed to J.C Bach, but in recent years opinion has swung back to it being an early composition of J.S. Bach.  Here’s the Monteverdi Choir’s recording:

https://app.idagio.com/recordings/12431870

 

 

 


   
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J. C. or J. S., either way, it's such a sublime piece, @Jen. Thank you for the link (my first time listening to it). 🙏

As simple as the words are, they make up an indeed one deeply moving motet! And the manner in which the voices kept "dancing" delicately around one another makes the piece all the more touching. The Monteverdi Choir is such an amazing ensemble. (I'll be posting a superb performance of them later in another post 👌).


   
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(@capriccio)
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Building my Motet Playlist as this conversation progresses!


   
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Posted by: @dinah

I also absolutely love Josquin Des Prez's Miserere Mei

So haunting, @dinah! I love it. 

And, of course, I should have mentioned that towering motet of Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium. It rivals Jesu, meine Freude in my list of favourites. 

https://app.idagio.com/recordings/39836380?trackId=39836376

And it also brings us back to Jen’s original question: What is a motet? If you take the handful we have mentioned so far in this discussion, they cover a wide spectrum, and if you listened to them in a sitting, you’d hardly think they all deserved the same title. 


   
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Posted by: @capriccio

So haunting, @dinah! I love it. 

And it's even the more haunting, @capriccio, for the story behind it!

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p01wd82h

 

 

Posted by: @capriccio

If you take the handful we have mentioned so far in this discussion, they cover a wide spectrum, and if you listened to them in a sitting, you’d hardly think they all deserved the same title. 

Indeed! They're all so varied in "style" and setting, some with choirs, some with a soloist, some set without music, some with a rich instrumental accompaniment!

Incidentally, a few day ago I came across this wonderful performance of Handel's Dixit Dominus (by non other than the Monteverdi Choir, @Jen!, and the British Baroque Soloists), and when @jen's post came up, and all the definitions we've pointed out, I thought: why don't we call this,

, or the equally beautiful Nisi Dominus by Vivaldi:

https://app.idagio.com/recordings/36361309

, or any other Psalm setting for that matter, "a motet"?! 🤔

 

---------------------------

(n. b. @Jen, feel free to move these links to another separate post if you think them irrelevant to the current discussion!)


   
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 Jen
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I think these examples are 100% relevant to the conversation!

Questioning why something isn’t a motet may be just as helpful as questioning what is.  Or not 😉

(I love both these works, by the way.. and Dixit probably does deserve a topic if its own?)

 


   
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 Jen
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How about this lovely setting of Da pacem Domine by Arvo Pärt?

https://app.idagio.com/works/12515792


   
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@jen it's a beautiful piece indeed. (I'm beginning to seriously rethink my aversion to modernist music 🤔)

It could be called a motet, surely. I mean it meets the criteria (even though it's technically a "hymn", but it was not written as a liturgy, so, yeah...)


   
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Posted by: @dinah

Incidentally, a few day ago I came across this wonderful performance of Handel's Dixit Dominus (by non other than the Monteverdi Choir

Oh damn! Dixit Dominus! Why don't I think of this as a motet? It might be because I've performed it several times and am so passionate about it that for me it's just 'Dixit'. Itself. 

Once you add it into the mix, I have to have it vying with Jesu meine Freude and Spem in Alium as my favorite motet. And it probably comes out on top. 


   
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