Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

God, Desire, and Musical Narrative in the Isorhythmic Motet

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

God, Desire, and Musical Narrative in the Isorhythmic Motet

Article excerpt


This article examines the relationship between late Medieval narrative structure in French literature and music (specifically the isorhythmic motet) and how that structure was shaped by deeply held beliefs within Medieval culture, including the idea that a person's identity and desires were directed by God. A detailed analysis of the motet De bon espoir/Puis que la douce rousee/Speravi by Guillaume de Machaut is made to support the argument.

In her book The Romance of the Rose and Its Medieval Readers, Sylvia Huot asks with respect to the work of Guillaume de Machaut, "where is the possibility for a legitimate and fruitful love, or for a learned and respectable love poetry? what sort of literary language and what sort of music are appropriate to the discourse of love?"1 Huot, a literary historian, is perhaps unaware that until recently the question about a music appropriate to the discourse of love would not have been entertained by most musicologists, since in order to attempt an answer we must engage in what John Van Engen calls "the subjectivity inevitably present in all interpretation";2 we must look at the relationships between notes and then beyond, to what those relationships divulge about the people who made them, or the society in which those relationships made sense, questioning, in other words, the musical choices made archaeologically. While there is now much critical engagement of this sort about music from the Renaissance onward, it has barely touched studies of Medieval music. As Don Randall pointed out a few years ago:

The prevailing view of early music history ... has strongly discouraged ... largely on the grounds of anachronism, the enterprise most likely to undermine it: criticism. Criticism was the invention of later ages and was to be practised, therefore, only on later music.3

This has not deterred scholars of the Middle Ages in fields other than music. Medieval literature is being rethought in light of recent developments in literary and feminist theory4 and even the methodology and aims of that most traditional enterprise in which Medievalists engage, philology, are being questioned in the wake of postmodern thought.5 But in music, aside from a few exceptions, those practising criticism have dealt with repertories after 1400, and the examples from before 1600 are few and far between.6

My project here is to ask Sylvia Huot's question of what may, at first, seem a rather unlikely genre of Medieval music for this inquiry, the isorhythmic motet, and in so doing to echo Randall's plea that "some kinds of criticism of works from what we have been pleased to call the Middle Ages and the Renaissance will repay our efforts by opening new aspects of these works to us."7 It may also help those outside the discipline of music - for example literary scholars such as Huot and others who engage themselves with Machaut's poetry but not with that poetry as it is set to music - appreciate how integral a part of the cultural fabric music is.8

I say that the motet is an unlikely site for this inquiry because the Medieval conception of music as sounding number is perhaps nowhere better played out than in this genre, which has given rise to a discourse focused in large part on matters related solely to the complexity of its structure. In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the motet is described as "a rigorously logical concept of marvellous daring" designed "proportionately to unfold, demonstrate and articulate the fundamental numerical theme given by the tenor."9 The metalanguage of isorhythm (and isomelism, isoperiodicity) used to articulate the structural principles of the motet is a product of modern, not Medieval, thought, developed by German musicologists who were pioneers in the formalist thinking about music that has so dominated the discipline in this century.10 The other peculiarity of this genre, its polytextuality, has recently begun to be subjected to sympathetic analysis, mostly by literary historians, but it was long dismissed as part of the intellectual elitism of the composers, who were thought to revel in complexities that were beyond the understanding (or hearing) of most, Christopher Page has begun to dismantle this view of the motet for the thirteenth century, offering a new translation and reinterpretation of the only Medieval treatise to deal with the subject, Johannes de Grocheio's De musica. …

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