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Book Review

The Motet Around 1500

The Motet Around 1500 by Schmidt-Beste

On the Relationship Between Imitation and Text Treatment

Editor: Thomas Schmidt-Beste
Brepols (Epitome Musical), 2012 570pp
ISBN-10: 2503525660
ISBN-13: 978-2503525662
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Belgian publisher, Brepols, is to be congratulated for continuing to produce authoritative, scholarly and appealingly lavish books on topics that are at once important and of real and lasting interest to music lovers, musicians and musicologists of all levels. They tend to be pricey; this one, The Motet Around 1500, costs almost US$150. But every one is well worth its price. Expertly written and/or edited, comprehensive, meticulously researched and attractively produced, titles from this publisher always deserve close attention.

This is true for The Motet Around 1500: On the Relationship Between Imitation and Text Treatment. It's in the "Epitome Musical" series, which is under the overall direction of Philippe Vendrix. In this case Professor Thomas Schmidt-Beste of Bangor University's (in Wales) School of Music has assembled a couple of dozen authoritative and accessible contributions by world-renown specialists on the stage that the motet had reached in its development by the turn of the sixteenth century. Specifically, the extent to which imitative techniques and the "declamation" of text had evolved during the age of its greatest exponent, Josquin Desprez (1450/1455 – 1521), who was then at the height of his powers. Josquin is given his due in the nearly 600 substantive pages of this book. But The Motet Around 1500 is also distinguished by attention to such other composers as Johannes Regis (c. 1425 – c. 1496), Antoine Busnois (c. 1430 – 1492), Jacob Obrecht (1457/8 – 1505), and Ludwig Senfl (c. 1486 – 1542/1543) as well as a host of less well known composers who were working wholly or largely in the genre in the period.

This is not a composer by composer study, though. The (historical, musical and geographical) contexts are vital. There are chapters examining the intricacies of technique (by Julie Cumming, for example), the very process of composition of the motet (Rob Wegman), and the ostinato-tenor "trend" (Timothy Pack). Kenneth Kreitner looks at the way in which composers in Spain took up the motet; then there are informed perspectives from the relatively general (John Brobeck on the origins of the Parisian motet) to the specific (Richard Wexler on the Medici Codex). This combination makes for a rounded picture.

On the other hand, no single thesis is advanced throughout the chapters. In the spring of 2007 a group of 45 musicologists met in Bangor to consider the ideas discussed by Ludwig Finscher in his seminal article from 1979 examining the "relationship between imitation and text treatment in the age of Josquin". To what extent did the motet drive (wider) stylistic developments in music at that juncture? To what extent were motets written according to "humanistic" principles, where meaning fitted form, for example? (How) was imitation the (one) style or texture to which (all) future composers would aspire? Although there were studies in the intervening 30 years or so, no attempt was made to aggregate research, propositions, refutations and (new) information. No consensus was reached (even attempted) to explain why the motet changed in so many ways around the beginning of the sixteenth century – basically from a formal, chant-based model, to a more fluid one.

It takes but a moment's thought to realize how crucial an understanding of this "watershed" is to appreciating Renaissance music more generally. The basis, the rationale, of The Motet Around 1500 is clearly outlined in Rifkin's contribution, which constituted the keynote at the Bangor event: the context and exact nature of such a hiatus are largely unclear to us because we don't know enough about the motet in the preceding couple of generations. Various of the contributors (which also include such experts as Stephen Rice, David Fallows and John Milsom) advance answers, speculations and elaborations on this potential "solution". And although their ideas span a wide spectrum of thought, the conclusions are always sustainable.

This multi-faceted consideration of the question was specifically structured for this book into six broader sections: on Text; the Compositional Process; Composers themselves, Repertoires; Context and Meaning; as well as on the "Fundamental Question". Each of these contains between a couple and half a dozen or so chapters. There is much cross-referencing: the music, the composers, the treatment. But the central question of the changes in how text worked in the motet is common, really, to the work of all the contributions.

As mentioned, the book has been attractively produced… footnotes run through the text but in the wide left margin of each corresponding page, rather than at its foot. Writers refer to one another's contributions, making this more a cohesive study than a collection of papers simply recording the presentations at Bangor. It's a whole work in its own right. Diagrams, musical examples, annotated staves (often turned on their side – in landscape orientation – to aid legibility by allowing a larger font size than is often the case in studies like these), tables, and much clearly quoted text all abound.

This is likely to become and remain the definitive study of its subject for some time. Those chosen to contribute have been given rein enough really to explore, rather than merely expose, their areas of interest… Joshua Rifkin writes about the motet as existing in a "Black Hole"; Warwick Edwards discusses the Humanistic Fallacy; John Milsom Josquin's "Combative Impulse"; Murray Steib has the Old Guard "going to school". But there is nothing eccentric or "catchy" about the essays. Rather, they reflect the liveliness and richness of current thinking and debate on the subject.

It might seem as though the focus of this book is too specialized for the general reader – particularly when such topics as the possible semantics of the cantus firmus motet and Marian devotions, the Rosary and early sixteenth century motets are dealt with. No. Although university and college departments will want to have this book available, the depth, expertise and broader implications of understanding this crucial musical form are so important, and so well dealt with in The Motet Around 1500 that it should be recommended without hesitation to Classical Net readers interested either in the period in particular, and/or the history of music more generally. More simply put, if we fail to understand the turn which the motet took around 1500, we fail to understand the relationship between text and music across the board thereafter.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sealey.