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Motet ( church Latin motetus , French motet ) is a generic term in polyphonic vocal music that has been around since the 13th century. The term describes different musical forms over the centuries: Different text in the different voices and a recurring rhythm in the lower part ( isorhythmy ) characterize the early motet up to the 15th century; the later motet is typically sacred music, in which instruments can be added to the singing parts. The secular counterpart to the motet is the madrigal .


The Benedictine monk Walter Odington spoke of brevis motus cantilenae around 1300 and derived the expression from the Latin word motus for "movement". In 1774, the church music historian Martin Gerbert made a reference to the word mot (French mot "word"; Italian motto "saying"). The linguist Friedrich Kluge calls the motet a church hymn based on a Bible verse like a motto . The term appears at the end of the 15th century and then became indigenous to Germany in the 16th century.


In the 13th and 14th centuries, in addition to spiritual content, mostly in Latin , there was also secular content, also in French. Both levels could even mix in the same piece. In the course of time, however, there was a narrowing to spiritual texts, although the so-called state motets could also refer to secular events. In the 17th – 20th In the 19th century there were not only Latin but also vernacular texts, such as translated Bible texts, but also texts of sacred songs.


The first motets in the 13th century were short in length. Isorhythmic motets from the 14th and 15th centuries can be divided into sections based on the repetitive rhythm in the lower part. Some pieces are also divided into several parts by changing the meter. From around 1500, imitation became an important stylistic element - now a separate musical motif was composed for each text section and guided through the voices. From the baroque period onwards, a motet could consist of several movements .

Number of votes

The number of votes in motets grew from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, similar to the number of votes in other genres. In the 13th century there were still many two-part motets, in the 16th century five to six voices became the norm, and from 1550 onwards there could also be eight to twelve voices for multi-choir pieces. The motet Spem in alium for 40 voices by Thomas Tallis is rather an exception.

In the Baroque period there were large motets in which a whole orchestra was added to the singing parts. On the other hand, there were motets in which only a single instrumentally accompanied singing part is occupied. In addition, there were compositions in which the a cappella tradition of the Renaissance, including multi-choir, was continued. This line of tradition is continued in the 19th century.


Important motet composers are for example

Development of the motet

middle Ages

The earliest motets developed in the 13th century - especially at the Notre-Dame school in Paris - from the practice of the organa . Wilhelm Meyer's best-known but controversial theory on the origin of the motet states that the motet was created from the clausulae , strophic insertions in a longer Organum sequence. Clausulae were usually sung a cappella over the cantus firmus . In contrast to the cantus firmus, the faster musical rhythm of the opposing treble voices was based on their (own) text and thus formed a mostly short rhythmic interlude - called motetus (other names: mutetus , motellus , motecta , modulus , also modulamen or modulatio ). The Discantus vulgaris positio (around 1200) explicitly emphasized that the motetus is not set note against note of the Tënor , but rather differs from it in note values ​​and pauses. This marked the end of the conduction style and the beginning of polyphony and counterpoint in Western music history. Other well-known theories about the origin of the motet come from Wolf Frobenius and Christopher Page .

From these beginnings, the medieval motet soon developed in the real sense: Different texts (sometimes in different languages) were sung simultaneously over a Latin cantus firmus. This was usually taken from a Gregorian chant (seldom a secular folk song) and was probably - in the interest of clarity - mostly presented instrumentally. Secular compositions could also be called motets.

In the 14th century isorhythmy was introduced in motets; only Philippe de Vitry, but especially Guillaume de Machaut, used this new technique. Around 1435, Guillaume Dufay was one of the last to use isorhythmy.


In the Renaissance the term motet was retained, but the character of the composition changed fundamentally: the cantus firmus was stretched, its rhythm hardly recognizable and without any influence on the treble parts. The renaissance motet became a short contrapuntal choral piece, which mostly had no relation to a specific holiday and could therefore be used at any time. Antiphons were mostly used as motet texts. The differences to the - secular - madrigals were now hardly recognizable: Palestrina's "motets" used the revealing Song of Solomon, his "madrigals" he set to Petrarch's texts from the Virgin. It was also said: If it is Latin, it is a motet, if in the national language it is a madrigal. Secular motets were also written, the subject was often praise of princes, but no longer (as in the Middle Ages) courtly love.

In the second half of the 16th century, Giovanni Gabrieli and others in Venice developed a new motet style in which two or more chapels were alternately active (“polychoral style” or “Venetian motet”, see Venetian polychoralism ).


The term motet was also retained in baroque music ; however, the texts were limited to spiritual content. Again the character changed. With the advent of the figured bass around 1600, the term motet was extended to include accompanied vocal music, even works for a single instrumentally accompanied voice ( Voce sola or petit motet ) were given this name; nevertheless, the a cappella style remained the rule.

Johann Gottfried Walther describes the motet from the Baroque period in his Musical Lexicon from 1732, with reference to Syntagma musicum by Michael Praetorius and the Dictionnaire étymologique by Gilles Ménage : “Motetto [...] is actually a strongly decorated with fugues and imitation bus, and about a biblical saying only (the singing without instruments thoroughbass excluded) verfertigte musicalische Composition; but the voices can also be filled with all kinds of instruments and amplified. "

In France, pieces with full orchestral accompaniment were called grands motets ; The main representatives were Jean-Baptiste Lully and Michel-Richard Delalande . Her works served to glorify the royal court and contain soloist roles, such as Lully's Plaude laetare Gallia on the occasion of the baptism of the son of Louis XIV.

German baroque composers also wrote motets. Heinrich Schütz, for example, published the Symphoniae sacrae, a series of motets in Latin and German. The climax of his motet work was the sacred choral music , which he wrote in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years' War . Four important double-choir motets and one four-part motets by Johann Sebastian Bach have been preserved, which are counted among his most important works. Next to it are the five-part chorale motet Jesus, my joy and some four-part motet movements for choir and basso continuo .

See also: Imitated motet

19th century

The motet in the 19th century typically has a spiritual text, often still Bible text or also hymn book verses, rarely spiritual lyrical prose. Usually a text is chosen that has strong contrasts in content and is therefore suitable for a text-based setting. The content is serious spiritual contemplation.

The motet is seen as a historical genre. It is thus based on the tradition of older motet compositions, which at the beginning of the 19th century mainly meant the Bach motets, which were regularly performed again from around 1802 in Berlin and Leipzig, and secondarily also motets by Schütz and other composers . The motets from before 1600 were only held up as models again after 1860. Following the historical models, the line-up is mostly a cappella choir, i.e. without instruments. There is seldom a change between choir and soloists, e.g. B. with Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy . The music follows the text. The style is mostly contrapuntal, the voices are equal.

20th century

The conception of the motet from the 19th century continues in the 20th century: the motet remains an a cappella form with a spiritual background and a strong historical character. The reference to older masters and work forms is more pronounced here than in other genres, although the individual language of the composers of the 20th century is also expressed in the motet, but mostly the attraction of the modern motet consists in a contrast between old form and to build modern language.

Although the musicologist Rudolf Stephan speaks of the decline of the motet in the 20th century in an essay , there are still some important representatives in this genre. The motet cycles by Hugo Distler , Ernst Krenek and Francis Poulenc should be mentioned , as well as Johann Nepomuk David , Zoltán Kodály and Ernst Pepping as well as Arnold Schönberg's late exploration of this genre (Opus 50). Especially for amateur choirs and choirs emerged after the Second World War strengthened motets ( Wolfgang Stock Meier and Siegfried Strohbach ). The development of contemporary music in the 1950s, however, almost completely excluded this form of work, even Olivier Messiaen wrote his only motet O sacrum convivium as early as 1937 . After the Second World War, however, his approach to choral music was much more experimental, so that despite the reference to Claude Le Jeune , his Cinq rechants can hardly be called a motet.

In addition to the vocal form, the genre motet also appears as an instrumental version, for example with the American composer Arnold Rosner (Isorhythmik motet op. 65 (1976)).

21st century

In the 21st century, composers such as Karl Jenkins , Arvo Pärt , Sven-David Sandström , Enjott Schneider and Ludger Stühlmeyer received the form of the motet in the tradition of liturgical-based texts. Schneider and Stühlmeyer fall back on the isorhythmic form of a cappella setting as well as on the instrumentally accompanied and imitative form, Jenkins and Pärt on the a cappella form. Sandström places his compositions in correspondence with the motets of Johann Sebastian Bach. Other composers are Lothar Graap , Christopher Tambling and Klaus Wallrath .

Motet as musical devotion

The motet as a musical devotion has a longer tradition in various places:

  • In the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, two musical devotions a week, on Fridays and Saturdays, are called “motets”. They are designed by the St. Thomas' Choir or guest musicians. The motet on Friday takes the form of a Vespers . A Bach cantata is usually performed on Saturdays.
  • Since 1934 the “Motet” has been held every Thursday in Bremen Cathedral as a choir or organ concert, sometimes with a larger cast.
  • In 1945, Walter Kiefner founded the “Motet” in the collegiate church in Tübingen as a weekly Saturday evening devotion based on the Leipzig model.
  • Also in Saalfeld in Thuringia, the “Saalfeld Evening Motets” usually take place on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. and have existed as a regular facility for around 200 years.


  • Motet . In: Riemann Music Lexicon. Volume 3: factual part. Schott, Mainz 1967, p. 588 ff.
  • Horst Leuchtmann, Siegfried Mauser (Ed.): Mass and Motet (= handbook of musical genres. 9). Laaber, Laaber 1998, ISBN 3-89007-132-5 .
  • Jan Henning Müller: The composer as a preacher: the German Evangelical Lutheran motet as a testimony to the preaching and interpretation from the Reformation era to the present. Dissertation, University of Oldenburg, 2002 ( online ).
  • Herbert Schneider: The motet. Contributions to their genre history. Schott, Mainz 1992, ISBN 3-7957-1724-8 .
  • Wilhelm Meyer: The origin of the motet. in: Wilhelm Meyer: Collected treatises on Middle Latin rhythm. II. Berlin 1905.
  • Carl Dahlhaus (ed.): New handbook of musicology. 13 volumes.
  • Wolf Frobenius: On the genetic relationship between Notre Dame clauses and their motets. In: Archives for Musicology . XLIV, 1987, pp. 1-39.
  • Christopher Page: Discarding Images. Reflections on Music and Culture in Medieval France. Oxford 1993, pp. 43-64 (Chapter 2, "The Rise of the Vernacular Motet").
  • Susanne Cramer: Johannes Heugel (approx. 1510–1584 / 85). Studies on his Latin motets . In: Cologne contributions to music research , ed. von Niemöller, Klaus Wolfgang, Kassel 1994.

See also

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Friedrich Kluge: Etymological dictionary of the German language. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1975, Lemma Motette.
  2. Catalog raisonné by Arnold Rosner
  3. 19 motets for mixed voices a cappella . Boosey & Hawkes 2014, ISBN 978-1-78454-028-9 .
  4. Da pacem Domine (2004/2006), motet for SATB choir. In: Cantica nova. Contemporary choral music for church services , Regensburg / Passau 2012, ISBN 978-3-00-039887-2 .
  5. Chamber Choir Hannover "Bach vs. Sandström" (2014) Website of the Association of German Concert Choirs.
  6. God did not give us (2007), motet for SATB choir and organ. Come on, Holy Spirit (2002), motet for SATB choir. In: Cantica nova. Contemporary choral music for church services , Regensburg / Passau 2012, ISBN 978-3-00-039887-2 .
  7. Veni Creator Spiritus (2012), motet for SATB choir. In: Cantica nova. Contemporary choral music for church services , Regensburg / Passau 2012, ISBN 978-3-00-039887-2 . With Hearts Renewed (2017), Motet for choir SATB and instruments, Dedicatet to the Westminster Cathedral Choir of London. Hymn (2017), text based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe , motet for a cappella choir SSAATTBB, dedicated to Matthias Grünert . In Christo baptizati (2019), motet for SATB choir and organ. Ries & Erler, Berlin 2019, ISMN 979-0-50254-145-3.
  8. "Thursday Motet" website of the Bremen Cathedral