Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2020
THANKS TO THE SURVIVING TESTIMONIES of Egidius de Murino and Johannes Boen – which are backed up by cycles of rhythmic and melodic repetition so clear they can be noticed by even the novice analyst – we know quite a bit about how ars nova motet tenors were constructed. But at what point in the process of motet composition did tenor construction take place? Did composers begin with tenors and then proceed to the upper voices, or did some aspects of upper-voice construction precede the ordering of borrowed chant notes into rhythmically patterned motet tenors? The chief theoretical witness on this point is again Murino, who indicates in a famous aside near the beginning of his treatise that chants are selected for motet tenors based on some pre-existing constraints:
Primo accipe tenorem alicuius antiphone vel responsorii vel alterius cantus de antiphonario et debent verba concordare cum materia de qua vis facere motetum.
First take a tenor from some antiphon or responsory or another chant from the antiphoner, and the words should be in agreement with the stuff (materia) out of which you wish to make the motet.
While this remark patently indicates that materia precedes the selection of a chant for the tenor, it does not make clear what exactly ‘materia’ is. The word is frustratingly vague: it can mean substance, topic, subject matter, even building material; I have translated it above as ‘stuff’. A range of scholarly viewpoints has been expressed on what exactly this stuff might be, and how it relates to the process of composing motets. Sometimes ‘materia’ has been interpreted as a broad theme, the subject-matter which a motet treats. At other times it has been suggested that the upper-voice texts were fully written before the tenor was selected. In most accounts this stuff is limited to the semantic realm – indeed Murino links materia with text specifically. When it comes to notes and pitches, the tenor is still often characterized as ‘the “bones” and “foundation,” defining the outlines of the whole work’.