Motets: Characteristics & Composers

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  • 0:49 Characteristics of the…
  • 1:47 Guillaume de Machaut
  • 2:24 Characteristics of the…
  • 3:14 Josquin des Prez
  • 4:37 Palestrina
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

What is a motet? How did motets differ in the Medieval and Renaissance periods? Learn the characteristics of the different motets and key composers from each period in this lesson.

Motet Definition

A motet can be defined as an unaccompanied choral composition based on a sacred Latin text. There have been some exceptions, such as motets with secular text or the occasional instrumental accompaniment, but we'll focus on the most common one here. In general, motets used religious texts not used in the mass, since by this time, the mass already had standardized music. Motets were often polyphonic, meaning there were various vocal parts sung at the same time. Though motets started being written in the late Medieval period, they developed greatly in and are most associated with the Renaissance period, which lasted from approximately 1450-1600.

Characteristics of the Medieval Motet

The motet was based on the work of Leonin and Perotin, two medieval French composers from the Notre Dame Church in France. Around the 1200s, they added multiple vocal parts to what was previously a single line of church chant. The motet was even more complex, with additional vocal parts being sung along with previously existing chant. These additional vocal parts started as short repeating patterns, as is heard here.

Over time, the rhythms became longer and more complex. The text of the motet also became more and more complex. Along with the original chant, Latin or French text was added. Near the end of the period, this included both sacred and secular text.

Guillaume de Machaut

Guillaume de Machaut was a key composer of motets in the 1300s, and his efforts made great strides in reaching new musical ideas in the Renaissance. While most known for his masses, Machaut wrote many motets and influenced others. His motets stand out for their changing rhythms, longer lengths and integration of sacred and secular texts.

Characteristics of the Renaissance Motet

Compared to the medieval motet, the Renaissance motet is smoother and uses imitative polyphony, with successive voice parts that echo each other, kind of like a round. We can see and hear this in the text and successive adding of vocal parts.

Surprisingly, the Renaissance motet is also simpler, with more singable melodies than the medieval motet. The Renaissance motet is always in Latin text and is for the ordinary mass. Two important composers of Renaissance motets were Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Josquin Des Prez

Josquin des Prez was one of the most important composers of the mid-Renaissance period, around 1500. A composer of Franco-Flemish descent, Josquin was the Elvis of his time, revolutionizing music and being even famous enough to be known by just his first name - or maybe it was just because they both had weird names. Anyway, Josquin was considered a master of church music by many, including Martin Luther, who proclaimed him as 'the master of notes.'

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