For my first post, I think it’s appropriate to begin with my favorite piece ever written.
You should begin by listening to it, because then you’ll fall in love with it, too, and you’ll want to learn more about it.
To see the sheet music in modern notation, go to page 86 of this book.
This piece, “Aucuns vont souvent – Amor qui cor – Kyrie”, is a classic example of a 13th-century motet. Like those of other motets from this time, its title comes from the first phrase of each of the three parts. The lowest voice (tenor) begins by singing “Kyrie”, the middle voice (motetus) begins by singing “Amor qui cor”, and the highest voice (triplum) begins by singing “Aucuns vont souvent”.
What’s a motet?
The word motet can be confusing because, although motets were written in large numbers beginning in the early 13th century and continuing well into the 18th century, the meaning of the word changed. A motet from 1250 is not the same kind of piece as a motet from 1450 or 1650.
For our purposes (discussing the 13th century), a motet is a musical piece with the following features:
- It is polyphonic (in other words, there are multiple melody lines).
- It is composed based on a line of plainsong chant (in this case, “Kyrie eleison”). This melody is called the tenor and is the lowest voice in the composition.
- All of the higher melodies are written to sound good with the tenor (though not necessarily with each other).
- The upper melodies can have words in any language and addressing any topic, either related or unrelated to the tenor.
- The notes of the upper melody lines are shorter than those in the tenor, and they move more quickly.
The motet is an incredibly important medieval genre, and now that you know about it, you will start to hear them everywhere.
This song was written by Petrus de Cruce, who was from Amiens and probably studied at the University of Paris. We assume he wrote the music and the words (except for the tenor line, which, as you know, is taken from a Church chant).
In the late 13th century, Petrus was one of the coolest, most innovative musicians around. People of his time considered him one of the best “practical” composers, meaning someone who didn’t just write mathematically correct formulas for composing, but who could actually write beautiful pieces.
Petrus’s most important contribution to music was the idea of subdividing the breve into more than three semibreves. At the time, composers thought of rhythm in terms of division – there was a basic beat or note length, which could be divided into two or three shorter note lengths, which could be divided in turn into two or three note lengths, and so forth. (In terms of modern musical notation: Imagine a whole note that can be divided into two half notes, which can each be divided into two quarter notes, etc.) But instead of two or three small notes, Petrus would cram four, five, six, or even seven little notes into that space. People were very impressed.
Like Petrus’s other motets, this one has an irregular verse structure, without consistent line lengths, syllable counts, or recurring stress patterns. It does use rhyme; however, Petrus’s idea of what rhymes doesn’t always match up with what 21st-century listeners expect. For example, he rhymes diligitur with labitur because their final syllables rhyme, even though this is not the stressed syllable. He also feels no compunction to align the stressed syllables of the text with the musical stresses of the melody. (I mimicked his style in my translation.)
I love the way this set of texts interacts with one another. The triplum espouses a classical medieval viewpoint of Courtly Love: the idea that the very experience of being in love refines and elevates the lover in a moral sense. The motetus counters with the highly logical argument that love is a distraction from moral pursuits. In the performance of many motets, the tenor’s lyrics are essentially ignored, being seen as simply a meaningless framework upon which the rest of the song is built; however, I think that “Lord, have mercy” is an entirely appropriate response to the paradox presented by the upper two voices.
in Latinized Greek
|Kyrie eleyson.||Lord, have mercy.|
|Amor, qui cor vulnerat
humanum, quem generat
vel raro potest esse,
quoniam est necesse,
ut quo plus diligitur
res, que cito labitur
et transit, eominus
|Love, which wounds
the human heart,
love, which carnal lust creates,
never or rarely
can exist without sin,
for it must be
that the more
a thing which quickly decays
and passes away is loved,
the less the Lord is loved.
|Aucuns vont souvent
par leur envgie mesdisant
d’amours, mes il n’est
si bonne vie
com d’amer loiaument;
quar d’amours vient
et tout honour
et tout bon ensegnement.
Tout ce puet en li prouver,
veut faire sans boidie
et amer vraiement,
que ja en liniert assi se vilanie
ne couvoitise d’amasser argent.
Ains aime bonne compaignie
et despent adés largement;
et si n’a en li felonnie
n’envie sus autre gent,
mes a chascun s’umelie
S’il a du tout sans partie
mis son cuer en amer entierement;
quil n’aime mie
ains ment, s’il se demaine autrement.
|Some often go around
badmouthing love out of envy,
but there is no
life as good
as loving loyally;
for from love comes
and all honor
and all good upbringing.
All of this can be shown
by one who takes
a sweetheart without deceit
and loves truly.
Villainy will never reside in him,
nor will the desire to amass money.
Rather, he loves fair company
and always spends money generously,
and there is in him no ill will
nor envy toward other people,
but he humbles himself
courteously toward other people —
if he has wholly, without exception,
set his heart entirely on loving.
And know that he
who conducts himself otherwise
does not love at all; rather, he lies.
Translations from The Development of Western Music: An Anthology, Volume I: From Ancient Times through the Baroque Era, edited by K. Marie Stolba (1998).
This is my favorite recording, because the triplum singer’s voice is so beautiful. In this recording, the triplum and motetus are sung separately; each singer is accompanied by instruments playing the other lines.
Here is a recording where you can hear what it sounds like when the triplum and motetus are sung at once.
Here is a copy of the sheet music in modern notation. You’ll need to scroll to page 86.
- Date: c 1290
- Composer: Petrus de Cruce (fl c 1270-1300)
- Turin, Biblioteca Reale 42, no.13
- Montpellier, Bibliothèque Inter-Universitaire Section Médecine H196, no.247
- Original Language: French
- Genre/Form: motet