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The language of medieval music: two thirteenth-century motets*

  • Ardis Butterfield (a1)


The phrase ‘the language of music’, made famous by Deryck Cooke's book of that name, is much repeated in modern music criticism. Is it possible to use this phrase in a medieval context? In what ways is the relationship between music and language in the medieval period best described? The importance of this question is clear when one considers both how high a proportion of medieval music was texted, and conversely, the extent to which the performance of much medieval poetry (even narrative poetry) involved music. We are fortunate that this very large issue has received detailed attention in John Stevens's magisterial account of medieval monophony. My attempt here is to extend the argument into the area of polyphony, concentrating on the nature of compositional activity in thirteenthcentury France. This will include discussion of how far the compositional processes of music and poetry are comparable in this period, and indeed whether they are in any way collaborative. Do the two structural systems – languages, perhaps – of music and words have any effect on each other's system of meaning?



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1 Cooke, Deryck, The Language of Music (London, 1959).

2 Stevens, John, Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song, Narrative, Dance and Drama 1050–1350 (Cambridge, 1986).

3 The Language of Music, p. 26.

4 Words and Music, p. 409. See also “The Old Sound and the New”, Inaugural Lecture (Cambridge, 1982).

5 The following paragraph is a brief and necessarily inadequate summary of a topic richly and densely elaborated in Words and Music. See especially Chapter 11 ‘Music and Meaning: the Problem of Expressiveness’.

6 Words and Music, p. 22.

7 The Language of Music, p. xii.

8 ‘In componendo partes praedictas debet artifex dictamen vel materiam ab alio, puta theologo vel legista, recipere, et post hoc formam ei debitam debet musicus applicare. Sic enim ad invicem se iuvant artes mechanicae, ut in sutoria et corii praeparatura sensui fit apertum.’ Rohloff, E., ed., Die Quellenhandschriften zum Musiktraktat des Johannes de Grocheio (Leipzig, 1972), p. 166. Although this edition has been standard, several of its readings require correction, which also applies to the translation by Seay, A., Johannes de Grocheo Concerning Music, 2nd edn (Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music Press, 1974). These are now supplied in the case of the comments on secular music from the treatise in Christopher Page's new edition published in this issue. Where applicable I refer to this in place of Rohloff.

9 Treitler, Leo and Jonsson, Ritva, ‘Medieval Music and Language: A Reconsideration of the Relationship’, Studies in the History of Music, 1: Music and Language (New York, 1983), pp. 123 (p. 22). Stevens's position is more modulated (see Words and Music, Chapter 8, especially pp. 292–307), although see also his most recent discussion of the relations between musical melody and textual meaning, Samson dux fortissime: An International Latin Song, Plainsong and Medieval Music, 1 (1992), 140, especially his phrase, ‘a melody of emphasis’ (p. 24).

10 Page, ‘Johannes de Grocheio on Secular Music’, p. 37.

11 See no. 45 of The Montpellier Codex, ed. Tischler, Hans, trans. Susan Stakel and Joel C. Relihan, 4 vols., Recent Researches in the Music of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, 28 (Madison, Wise, 19781985) (hereafter Mo); and the French double motet Mo 141.

12 Recent literary criticism of the motet has suggested that the notion of polyphony be taken as a larger metaphor of the genre's disjunctive function. The different kinds of text, and in some cases different languages, are a manifestation of dissonance or contradiction, embodying various oppositional relations between – for example – the sexes, aristocrat and peasant, courtly and bourgeois, cleric and lay. See Huot, Sylvia, ‘Polyphonic Poetry: The Old French Motet and Its Literary Context’, French Forum, 14 (1989), 261–78. While this argument is attractive, the metaphor of dissonance can be used too readily without taking account of the marked musical consonance which is also characteristic of the genre. (See Grocheio's comments on consonance in the motet: Page, ‘Johannes de Grocheio on Secular Music’, p. 36.) In musical terms dissonance is not a mere cacophony of unintelligible sounds, but a precise set of sound relations. Similarly, in the analysis of the linguistic texts of the motet, disjunction plays its part within a context of other meaning relations formed through correspondence. The relationship between the different motet texts is thus not a uniform set of oppositions but an interplay between disjunction and correspondence.

13 Page ‘Johannes de Grocheio on Secular Music’, p. 36.

14 For a pioneering discussion of the relations between text and music in thirteenth-century motets, see Nathan, Hans, ‘The Function of Text in French Thirteenth-Century Motets’, Musical Quarterly, 28 (1942), 445–62. More recent approaches include Evans, Beverly J., ‘The Unity of Text and Music in the Late Thirteenth-Century French Motet: A Study of Selected Works from the Montpellier MS, Fascicle VII‘, unpublished dissertation, University of Pennsylvania (1983); Pesce, Dolores, “The Significance of Text in Thirteenth-Century Latin Motets”, Ada Musicologica, 58 (1986), 91117; and Smith, Norman E., ‘An Early Thirteenth-Century Motef, in Everist, M., ed., Models of Musical Analysis: Music before 1600 (Oxford, 1992), 2040.

15 Anderson, G. A., ed. Compositions of the Bamberg Manuscript: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek. Lit. 115 (olim Ed. IV. 6), Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae, 75 (Neuhausen-Stuttgart, 1977), (hereafter Ba), no. 80. Translation by Stephen Haynes, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Motets and Songs from Thirteenth- Century France, Gothic Voices, Hyperion Records, 1990, p. 22. A copy of the same motet occurs in Mo 104, and in Wolfenbuttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Helmstadt 1099 (W2, 2, 80), in a reduced form as a two-part motet with a Latin contrafactum (see also Mo 43). The tenor is taken from the alleluia for Epiphany: ‘Alleluia. Vs. Vidimus stellam eius in oriente, et venimus cum muneribus adorare Dominum'. As Y. Rokseth explains, the tenor is marked differently in the manuscripts: this is because the melisma on nobis in the first versicle coincides with that on eius in the second (see Polyphonies du treizieme siecle, 4 vols (Paris, 1935–9), iv, 161. This well-known motet has received much comment: see, in particular, F. Ludwig, Repertorium organorum recentioris et motetorum vetusttssimi stili, 2 vols: i/1 (Halle, 1910); repr. ed. L. A. Dittmer, Musicological Studies, 7 (Institute of Medieval Music, 1964); i/2, repr. ed. L. A. Dittmer, Musicological Studies, 26 (Institute of Medieval Music, 1978), i/1, 369 and G. A. Anderson, ed. The Latin Compositions in Fascicles Vll and VIII of the Notre Dame Manuscript Wolfenbuttel Helmstadt 1099 (1206), 2 vols., Musicological Studies, (Institute of Medieval Music: [1971]-6), Part 1: Critical Commentary, pp. 367–70. Early analysis of Ars Antiqua motet structure was undertaken by Denis Harbinson, ‘Imitation in the Early Motet’, Music and Letters, 45 (1964), 359–68, and ‘Isorhythmic Technique in the Early Motef, Music and Letters, 47 (1966), 100–09.

16 Stimpson, Brian, Paul Valery and Music: A Study of the Techniques of Composition in Valery's Poetry (Cambridge, 1984), p. 93.

17 The standard bibliography and edition of refrain texts is van den Boogaard, Nico H. J., Rondeaux et refrains du Xlle au debut du XlVe siecle (Paris, 1969), hereafter vdB. Transcriptions of the music are given (somewhat idiosyncratically) by Friedrich Gennrich, Rondeaux, Virelais und Balladen, 3 vols., Gesellschaft fur romanische Literatur, 43 (Dresden, 1921); GRL, 47 (Gottingen, 1927); Summa musicae medii aevi, 14 (Langen bei Frankfurt, 1963). For further discussion, see E. Doss-Quinby, Les Refrains chez les trouveres du Xlle siecle au debut du XlVe (New York, 1984); Mark Everist, The Refrain Cento: Myth or Motet?’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 114 (1989), 164–82; and Ardis Butterfield, ‘Repetition and Variation in the Thirteenth-Century Refrain’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 116 (1991), 1–23.

18 Both Tischler and Anderson italicize additional lines, implying the presence of further refrain material, namely Anderson: Adonc fine amour me prie (triplum)/ Adonc fine amour m'envie (motetus); Tischler: Adonc fine amour me prie (triplum) and Quant voi la rose espanie, ierbe vert et le tens cler (triplum and motetus). However, these lines, although they are echoed within the texts, do not possess the self-contained character of refrains. Moreover, none occurs in vdB. A distinction needs to be maintained here between the lines which are imitated, and lines which are refrains. Accordingly I have not reproduced their italics for these lines. (See also note 28 below.)

19 See vdB nos. 673, 674 and 667. The two-line refrain as given occurs in four motets (M29, M284, M50, M80); the first line (paired with different second lines) occurs additionally in M194, M195 and M286. (The classification M refers to Friedrich Gennrich, Bibliographie der altesten franzozischen und lateinischen Motetten, Summa musicae medii aevi, 2 (Darmstadt, 1958).

20 vdB no. 1293.

21 This type of text is known as a motet ente, a classificatory term which occurs as a rubric in several medieval manuscript lyric collections, such as Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, fonds francais 845, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 308, and Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, fonds francais 146. See also Grocheio: ‘Est etiam alius modus cantilenarum, quern cantum insertion vel cantilenam entatam vocant, qui ad modum cantilenarum incipit et earum fine clauditur vel finitur’ (There is also another kind of cantilena which they [i.e. the Parisians] call ‘ornamented song’ or ‘grafted song7. It begins in the manner of cantilene and ends or comes to a dose in their fashion. Page, ‘Johannes de Grocheio on Secular Music", p. 27 and note 41.

22 The ente process is common in motet texts, though distinguished as a procedure more by its variety than its uniformity. There are two other motet citations of En non Dieu (in Mo 96 and Mo 24) which employ the grafting technique in either or both of the motetus and triplum: all three motets display a slightly different pattern of split-citation.

23 Varty, K. ed., Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion (London, 1960). As far as I know, this correspondence has escaped notice in discussion of this motet (see note ibid above).

24 In the absence of a bibliography for refrain melodies to complement that of vdB for the texts, it is unfortunately not possible to gain anything approaching a comprehensive sense of how refrain melodies relate to one another.

25 The Robin and Marion tradition is widespread: pastourelle texts and refrains are a primary source, which in rum find their way into some thirty motets in the thirteenth century, as well as the Jeu by Adam de la Halle. For a complete collection see Wyndham, ed., Robin and Marion Motets, 3 vols. (Newton Abbot: Antico Editions, 1985–1989).

26 The earliest example of this (c. 1228–30) occurs in de Montreuil, Gerbert, Le Roman de la Violette, ed. Buffum, D. L., SATF (Paris, 1928), and is imitated (with some variations in the details of the rhyme schemes) by romance authors throughout the century. For instance: Li castelainne de Nior Con apieloit Allenor, Molt estoit cointe, un poi brunete, Puis a dit ceste cancpnnete, Qu'ele n'estoit mie esperdue: Aprendes a valoir maris, Ou vous m'aves perdue. (136–42)

27 For further comments on the cross-references (both melodic and verbal) not only between the motetus and tenor in this piece, but also between this piece and other motets based on the same tenor, see Rokseth, , Polyphonies, iv, 161.

28 Mo 112 (my translation). The tenor is a termination of the first Psalm Tone. According to Rokseth, this is the only motet to draw its tenor from this source (see Rokseth, , Polyphonies, iv, 197; see also Tischler, H., The Style and Evolution of the Earliest Motets (to circa 1270), 4 vols., Musicological Studies, 40:2 (Henryville & c, 1985), ii, 60 (052)). Once again Tischler's identification of refrain material is suspect and conflicts with vdB. His decision to italicize the first three lines of the motetus seems arbitrary, since he does not italicize the third line of the triplum which echoes the second of the motetus. But in any case the lines are straightforward narrative.

29 This is in fact common among motets. In some cases, the two texts being sung simultaneously imply a sequential narrative, such as Mo 110, where in the triplum a nun is seeking love, and in the motetus a monk is celebrating it, or Mo 118 where the same implicit narrative is played out between a shepherdess and a shepherd. In others the point of contradiction is expressed in the final juxtaposition of two contrary refrains, such as Mo 136 where one refrain addresses a brunette and the other a blonde, or Mo 127 where the refrains have only slight differences in wording but punningly express opposite meanings (Dieus, qui m'a doné cors pensant et cuer amer [triplum]/ Dieus, quar j'ai donné cuer et cors pour bien amer [motetus].

30 Tunstall, Patricia, ‘Structuralism and Musicology: An Overview‘, Current Musicology, 27 (1979), 5164.

* This article is a revised version of a paper read at the Annual Conference of the Society for French Studies, held at The Queen's University, Belfast, 1–5 April 1992. I am grateful to Brian Stimpson, as chair, for inviting me to participate in the sectional meeting entitled ‘Literature and Music’.

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The language of medieval music: two thirteenth-century motets*

  • Ardis Butterfield (a1)


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