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A short piece of music set to Latin words, and sung instead of, or immediately after, the Offertorium, or as a detached number in extra-liturgical functions. The origin of the name is involved in some obscurity. The most generally accepted derivation is from the Latin motus, "movement"; but the French mot, "word", or "phrase", has also been suggested. The Italian mottetto was originally (in the thirteenth century) a profane polyphonic species of music, the air, or melody, being in the tenor clef, taking the then acknowledged place of the canto fermo or plainchant, theme. Philip de Vitry, who died Bishop of Meaux, wrote a work entitled "Ars compositionis de motetis", the date of which was probably 1320. This volume (now in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale) contains our oldest specimens of sacred motets, and these continued in vogue for over two centuries. Gerbert prints some other motets of the first half of the fourteenth century, but they are not of any particular interest, and are mostly in two parts. It was not until the commencement of the following century, especially between the years 1390 and 1435, that a number of distinguished composers--e.g. Dunstable Power, Dufay, Brasart, and Binchois --produced polyphonic motets that are still worthy of attention.

Dunstables "Quam pulchra es" is a charming specimen of a three-part motet, the concluding Alleluia being far in advance of any similar work during the first quarter of the fifteenth century, betraying a genuinely artistic style. Equally beautiful are the motets of Lionel Power, the manuscripts of which are at Vienna, Bologna, and Modena. One of his happiest efforts is a four-part motet in which the treatment is peculiarly melodious and of an Irish flavour. Dufay, who was a Walloon, composed numerous motets, including "Salve Virgo", "Flos forum", "Alma Redemptoris", and "Ave Regina cælorum"; and by his will he ordered the last named exquisite composition to be sung by the altar boys and choristers of Cambrai cathedral at his death-bed. Brasart, also a Walloon, whose name appears among the pontifical singers in 1431, composed motets, including a four-part "Fortis cum quevis actio" and a very pretty "Ave Maria". Binchois, another native of Flanders has left some motets in three parts, including "Beata Dei Genitrix", but the treatment is archaic, and not at all comparable to the work of Power or Dufay. He died in 1460. Like Dufay, he was a priest and canon of Mons. From 1435 to 1480 the motet was treated by such masters as Caron, Okeghem, and Obrecht, and though the style is far in advance of similar compositions of the mid-fifteenth century, not many of the surviving specimens can compare with the best efforts of Power and Dufay. Okeghem was a priest, and was principal chaplain to Charles VII of France and to Louis XI, being subsequently made canon and treasurer of St. Martins at Tours. His motet, "Alma Redemptoris", displays much contrapuntal ingenuity, and he also wrote a motet for thirty-six voices, probably performed by six choirs of six voices each.

But it is between the years 1480 and 1520 that the motet as an art-form progressed, favoured by the nascent devices of the modern school, with Josquin Després as leader. The outstanding feature of time motets of this period is the extraordinary skill displayed in weaving melodious counterpoint around a short phrase of plainchant or secular melody. Josquin (Canon of St-Quentin) stands head and shoulders over his fellows, and his motets were among the earliest printed by Petrucci, in 1502-05. In all, one hundred and fifty of his motets have been printed, the best known being the beautiful one, founded on the plain-chant theme of "Requiem æternam", on the death of his master Okeghem, and the settings of the genealogies in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke. His fellow-pupil, Pierre de la Rue, also composed some charming motets, of which twenty-five have been printed. One of the best known is founded on a theme from the Lamentations of Jeremias. Another famous motet-writer of this period was Eleazar Genet, better known as Carpentras (from the place of his birth), a priest and papal nuncio. His "Motetti della corona" were published by Petrucci, in 1514 but he is best known for his "Lamentations", which continued to be sung by the pontifical choir at Rome until 1587. A third motet-writer was Jean Mouton, canon of St-Quentin, whose "Quam pulchra es" has often been ascribed to Josquin. A fourth is Jacques Clément (Clemens non Papa), who issued seven books of motets, published by Phalèse (Louvain, 1559) Three typical specimens have been reprinted by Proske in his "Musica divina". Jacob Vaett composed a motet on this French composers death in 1558. John Dygon, Prior of St. Augustines, Canterbury, was a composer of motets, one of which was printed by Hawkins. Other English composers who cultivated this art-form in the sixteenth century were: Fayrfax, Tallis (who wrote one in forty parts), Whyto, Redford, Taverner, and Shepherd. Many of the Latin motets by these musicians were subsequently adapted to English words. Arcadelt, a pontifical singer, composed an eight-part Pater Noster; his better known Ave Maria is of doubtful authenticity. Willaert, maestro di cappella at St. Mark's, Venice, and "father of the madrigal", published three collections of motets for four, five, and six voices not a few of which are extremely inventive and melodious though intricate.

The acme of motet composition was reached in the period from 1560 to 1620, when Orlandus Lassus (Roland de Lattre), Palestrina, Morales, Anerio, Marenzio, Byrd, de Rore, Suriano, Nanini, Gabrieli, Croce, and Monteverde flourished, not forgetting English Catholic composers like Bevin, Richard Dering, and Peter Philips. Palestrina, who has been aptly styled Princeps Musicæ, composed over 300 motets, some for twelve voices, but mostly for from four to eight voices, of which seven books were printed. One of his exquisite motets is, "Fratres, ego enim accepi", for eight voices, while another is the much simpler "Sicut cervus desiderat". Lassus composed 180 Magnificats, and 800 motets. The other masters quoted above have left us beautiful specimens. However, in the case of Monteverde (1567-1643), he broke away from the old traditions and helped to create the modern school of music, employing unprepared discords and other harmonic devices. Croce, who was a priest, published many beautiful motets, including "O sacrum convivium". In the mid-seventeenth century, owing to the conflict between the older and the newer schools, no appreciable advance was made in motet-writing. The only two composers who nobly upheld the true polyphonic school were Allegri and Casciolini. Allegri was a priest amid a pontifical singer, and he is best known by his famous Miserere for nine voices in two choirs. A few of Casciolini's motets are still sung. From 1660 to 1670 the modern type of motet, with instrumental accompaniment, came into vogue, and the ancient ecclesiastical "modal" treatment was superseded by the prevalent scale-tonality. The masters of this epoch were Leo, Durante, Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Carissimi, Stradella, and Purcell. During the eighteenth century the motet received adequate treatment at the hands of Johann Sebastian Bach, Keiser, Graun, Hasse, Handel, and Bononcini. A further development, but on different lines, took place during the nineteenth century, specimens of which may be found in the published works of Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, and Mendelssohn. However, the motu proprio of Pope St. Pius X has had the happy effect of reviving the polyphonic school of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when the motet in its truest form was at the height of perfection.


EITNER, Quellenlexikon (Leipzig. 1900-04); GROVE, Dict. of Music and Musicians (now ed., London, 1904-10); WALKER, Hist. of Music in England (London, 1907); DUNSTAN, A Cyclo pædic Dict. of Music (2nd ed., London, 1909).

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APA citation. Grattan-Flood, W. (1911). Motet. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Grattan-Flood, William. "Motet." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by W.S. French, Jr.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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