1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Motet

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MOTET, a musical art-form of paramount importance in the 16th century. The word is of doubtful etymology, and probably its various uses and forms in the 13th and 14th centuries connect with more than one origin. Thus motulus suggests modulus or melody; and probably represents the notion underlying the use of the term motetus or motellus to designate one of the middle parts in a vocal combination. On the other hand the obvious connexion between the Italian word mottetto (diminutive of motto) with the French mot (in the sense of bon mot) is in conformity with the use of a profane art-form contemporary with the conductus and rondel of these early epochs of music.

The only really definite and mature art-form denoted by the word motet is that of the 16th-century pieces of ecclesiastical music in one or two (rarely more) continuous movements, for the most part on Biblical or other ecclesiastical prose texts. The word is, however, used for any single Latin-text composition in continuous form, not set section ally verse by verse, and not forming a permanent part of the mass. Thus Palestrina’s Stabat mater is included among his motets; though the text is metrical and rhymed, and the style, though continuous, is far from being that of the typical polyphonic motet. The title of motet is also occasionally loosely used for non-ecclesiastical works, such as many of the numbers in the Magnum opus musicum of Orlando di Lasso and the dedicatory motet at the beginning of Palestrina’s fifth book. And in this way it is sometimes applied to compositions not to Latin text; as in Joaquin’s Déploration de Jehan Okenheim, where all except the canto fermo is in French.

The most important kind of motet is that which is intimately connected with the solemn mass for a particular holy day. Such motets are sung between the Credo and the Sanctus of the mass. They are, in typical cases, founded on the Gregorian tones of their texts, and the mass is founded on the same themes, thus giving the whole service a musical unity which has never since been approached in any church music even under Bach. When a motet was not founded on Gregorian tones it was still possible for the composer to design a mass on the same themes, and most of the titles of 16th-century masses, when they do not indicate a secular origin, indicate either the motet or the Gregorian tones on which they are founded. Thus Palestrina’s masses Assumpta est Maria; O admirabile commercium; Dum complerentur ; Hodie Christus natus est; Dies sanctificatus; Veni sponsa Christi, and the second Missa Tu es Petrus, are magnificent examples selected almost at random from the masses which the composer has founded on his own motets of the same name. When such masses are performed, whether in a concert room or church, it is indisputable that the motet ought always to be included. Sometimes one composer founded a mass on another composer’s motet; thus Soriano’s fine Missa, Nos autem gloriari, is based upon a motet by Palestrina. When a motet was in two movements the second movement almost always ended with the last clauses of the first, both in text and in music, thereby sometimes producing a distinctly modern impression of da capo form.

In later times the term motet is little more than a name for any choral composition of clearly single design; and the fact that such compositions have often been sung, like the 16th century motet, between the Credo and Sanctus of High Mass, has nothing to do with their character as an art-form. Bach’s motets are great German choral works in several movements, with no written accompaniment, though there is internal and external evidence that they were accompanied from score by the organ. Handel’s motets belong to his Italian period and are simply Latin cantatas of various kinds, with instrumental accompaniment. The later meanings attached to the word are quite indefinite, and have no common idea, except that the motet is nowadays the shortest kind of sacred choral music.  (D. F. T.)