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Out of Proportion: Understanding the Medieval Motet

Chadwick Jenkins
Benozzo Gozzoli, Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas

There is a parallel heard in the complex, seemingly conflicted harmony of 13th century music to today's dissonant world. As we struggle to fold our differences into an orchestrated 'global' accord, we might do well to challenge ourselves to stop, and truly listen.

On my dresser rests a picture of my grandmother and my mother that was taken long before I was born. It is old and faded with a brown tint that seems to slowly give way to yellow over the course of the passing years. Old photographs have one distinct advantage over modern photographs: they decay. They yellow with age and thereby mark themselves as being from a lost time. This may seem, at first glance, to be rather perverse reasoning. After all, modern pictures bear witness to times past in the modes of dress and the appearance of people that we know have changed since ("Yes, my hair really did look like that in the early '90s"). But, in this case, we know that time has passed based primarily upon the content of the picture.

Old photography, on the other hand, bears witness to the passing of time in its very materiality. The clarity of the image has faded; there is no illusion of an absence of mediation, nor is there the illusion of the ultimate permanence of the present and therefore of meaning. I was not alive when this picture was taken. I never knew the people represented within it as they were then. I only came to know them later as they were for me. And yet I have had a long relationship with that photograph.

Listening to music created prior to 1700 is somewhat similar to looking at an old photograph. (I employ the date 1700 merely as a fairly common point of division between a musical system fairly familiar to us today � namely, tonal music or the system employed more or less from Bach to the latest rock tune with a few exceptions � and the "modal" system that is grounded in a lost understanding of music. This point of division is not so much accurate as convenient.) We are aware in our interaction with this music that it is rather far removed from our "usual" experience of, and expectations regarding music. This music simply does not behave in the manner we have come to expect or, perhaps, demand. So what are we to do with it? Since there is no possible way of recovering the ears of those for whom this music was created, why should we bother engaging with it at all?

Recommended Recording

Anonymous 4, Love's Illusion: Music From the Montpellier Codex, 13th Century (Harmonia Mundi)
This recording presents an ideal introduction to the medieval motet. Some tracks, including the performance of the motet discussed in this article (track 16) present a single voice alone first so that the listener can isolate it within the full texture that follows. Other tracks simply present the motet as a whole. The performances are simply gorgeous and the booklet contains the complete lyrics in Old French, as well as in English and German translations.

Let us suspend the second question for the moment and concentrate on the first. What are we to do with it? The 13th century Scholastic philosopher and theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas believed that one of the primary conditions for beauty was the existence of the proper proportionate relationship between the sensible object (that is, whatever it is that we are supposed to find beautiful) and the sensory perception of the viewer or listener (that is, us). Hence, meaning and beauty do not reside simply within the object. Nor does beauty reside solely in our aesthetic sensibilities. There is no communication and no beauty unless both the sensible object (ostensibly the thing from which the communication is coming) and the recipient (ostensibly the person to whom the communication comes) meet in some kind of mutual harmony.

That seems straightforward enough. After all, if person X speaks only Chinese and person Y speaks only Swedish that may indeed create a certain difficulty in communication. But need it do so necessarily? We do not speak the same musical language as the people of the 13th century. In what way might we manage to enter into a proportionate relationship with such music? (Of course, the nagging question remains: why should we want to?)

Many (if not most) readers will have little to no idea what a medieval motet is at all. Therefore, it may behoove us to perform a brief thought experiment. Albert Einstein performed thought experiments, partially, in order to overcome the limitations of lived experience in relation to temporality (he imagined riding on a beam of light). I am suggesting something rather similar if wholly less ambitious. The purpose of my thought experiment is to overcome (if only partially) the distance of time. Put simply, we cannot comprehend this music on its own terms (a tantalizing but impossible goal) nor can we even approximate such an understanding without careful consideration. Therefore, let us begin a little closer to our own time.

Imagine three songs. It doesn't matter what three songs, just three. Now imagine them (only the melodies, mind you, feel free to leave off the instrumental accompaniment) playing simultaneously � words and melody! Are you really trying? It is not easy. Most melodies will not work. And even those that do work � well, what do you do with the words? I mean, after all, you cannot possibly understand more than one set of lyrics at a time, can you?

Let us try a more concrete example, one that any reader can check: the South Park movie. At one point in the film, there is a glorious amalgamation of various tunes that we have heard over the course of the story (Satan, the kids, the parents, the soldiers, as well as Terence and Philip), all brought together with their own individual melodies and lyrics, all unfolding simultaneously (or, to be more accurate, overlapping in places). It happens in musical theater all the time. And yet, there is something a bit different here from what occurs in Medieval music. The trick with most musical theater (and certainly with the South Park example) is that we have heard all of these songs (with their lyrics) before they are performed simultaneously and thus when they recur, one heaped upon the other so that the resultant cacophony obscures the meaning of the various texts, we still retain our recollection of the original meaning of the individual tune and can therefore surmise what its new meaning within this new juxtaposition might possibly be.

Now imagine not possessing the safety net of having heard these tunes and their lyrics before. You should at this point have some general idea as to what listening to a medieval motet is like. Except there is one more problem: most 13th century motets are in Old French (or, sometimes, Old French in one voice and Latin in another) and therefore are inscrutable to the great majority of the world's current population.

Medieval motets are usually constructed of two to four melodies (the most typical number of melodies being three). The lowest voice (called the tenor from the Latin tenere meaning "to hold") contained a pre-existent tune often from the repertory of liturgical chant (sacred music). Generally, the tenor is sung without text. The remaining voices were placed above the tenor. Each voice had its own melody and its own text. In other words, the motet is polyphonic (multiple melodies performed simultaneously) and polytextual (multiple texts performed simultaneously).

One of the most fascinating aspects of these pieces is the interaction among the various texts. For instance, in one four-voice motet of the 13th century from a collection called the Montpellier Codex, the tenor comes from a chant on the word "manere" ("to remain"). The remaining melodies contain texts treating rather different subjects. The highest outlines a somewhat typical argument about the necessary connection between pain and pleasure in love. Another text concentrates on treachery and deception (implicating the clergy in its allegations) while the last text describes a drunken revelry with "a good deal of hanky-panky". The combination of these texts presents a puzzle: why are they together?

They each treat a certain type of company. The lover asserts that his desire forces him to remain ("remanoir" � Old French derived from the Latin manere of the tenor) in Love's company. The second text contrasts "good company" ("bone compaignie") with the calumny of the clergy and the last text begins with the words "bone compaignie" and details the joys of bibulous and licentious camaraderie. This is not something one simply hears on first listen. In fact, you may not "hear" it at all. It requires time, thought and imagination � in a word, contemplation.

Based on surviving descriptions from the period (one of the primary sources is Johannes de Grocheo, a musician living in Paris around 1300), we know that the motet was considered intellectual music. Grocheo wrote that the motet "ought not to be propagated among the vulgar, since they do not understand its subtlety nor do they delight in hearing it, but it should be performed for the learned and those who seek after the subtleties of the arts". The motet would seem to have exemplified the medieval notion of aesthetic contemplation. First, we enjoy a musical performance in its sensual immediacy (its appeal to the sense of hearing) whereas later (perhaps more importantly) we contemplate the harmony that resides in music, which leads us to broader considerations of the harmony that pervades the universe.

But what do we mean by harmony, here? With regard to music, we tend to consider a sound as "harmonious" when it is consonant (that is, the combination of the tones result in a simultaneity that we find pleasant). Dissonance results from a simultaneity that is abrasive. Music gets some of its impetus for movement from our "desire" that dissonance "resolve", that is, that dissonance move to consonance. Dissonance, in most conceptions of music, has no identity in itself. It relies upon consonance for it to make musical sense. It is the shadow term that always seems to follow consonance � wholly different from it and yet part of what makes consonance what it is (after all, the easiest way to explain consonance is by showing that it is not dissonant).

However, this seemingly technical point has a powerful metaphysical underpinning. The Medieval philosopher and mathematician (remember that, for a long time, music was one of the four mathematical sciences) Boethius defined consonance as "dissimilium inter se vocum in unum redacta concordia" ("the concord of sounds dissimilar among themselves brought together into one") � a fascinating definition. The implication is that dissimilar things are made into a unit, but this is a unit in which, at the same time, they manage to maintain their identity as dissimilar. Or, as a slightly later tradition would have it, they maintain a discordant concordance � a togetherness that does not ignore their essential difference. This notion of harmony or consonance had a broader application than simply to sounds. Harmony was what maintained order throughout the cosmos; it allowed the conjoining of body and soul; it was our means of relating to the world and to God.

It is that harmony � that concordance of the discordant � which informs the textual puzzle, raised above. These are different concerns, different modes of being. The lover is caught, transfixed by Love (seemingly of a rather chaste kind since no actual love object is mentioned), oscillating aimlessly between joy and pain � or better, held in a state of joy shot through with pain. The suspicious man rails against the treachery, hypocrisy, and deceit of those too highly "attracted to the things of this world". Meanwhile, the revelers immerse themselves blithely in the prurience of this world, sating all desires.

Different texts, different melodies with different rhythms: it should be utter chaos and yet the music brings all of this together and forges it into a harmonious whole without sacrificing the individual melodic design of any of its constituent parts, making the conceptually discordant, sonically concordant. These worldviews, these desires, coexist in their internal contradictions.

We can never hear or understand this music as it was understood by the people of the time. We (at least most of us) no longer believe that there is a "music of the spheres", a cosmic harmony that governs all things. The distance between our world and theirs is evident in the very materiality of the music (these sounds are no longer our sounds) just as the yellowing photograph reminds me that those times were not my times. But music (art in general, however you care to define the term) must not be thought of as having some kind of permanent, immutable meaning. Conceived in this way, all art is dead weight. An artwork contains networks of intensities; it consists of possibilities that only become apparent in a specific, socially situated understanding. The act of engaged listening seeks to make that process of meaning possible.

In a world that continues to navigate the contested space between communal understanding and radical individuation, in a world composed of increasingly fragmented social units that somehow still seeks to establish a global community, in a country (such as the United States) that divides its parts into red and blue states, we may indeed have something to listen for in this music no matter how far removed it is from our present experience � or better, precisely because it is so far removed. It forces us to make an effort to understand; we do not simply assume that we already know. In the process, it should prompt us to ask what we need to hear in it.

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