Medieval music is music from ca. 700 to ca. 1425, following the standard periodization of the Middle Ages. The Latin Bible was the central text of medieval sacred music. Themes and narratives from scripture formed the underlying structure of the Christian liturgy, which was the context for the performance of most sacred music. The gospel reading at Mass assigned to each liturgical occasion formed a centerpiece for the rest of the texts sung on that day; consequently the development of the chant repertory proceeded in parallel with the history of biblical exegesis. Reading and commenting on scripture was the foundation of medieval Christian education, and the habits of thought that emerged from this shared background are manifested in the selection of biblical texts for the chants of the liturgy.

Scriptural texts formed the basis of the chant repertory from its very origins; chant, in turn, supplied the foundation for the polyphonic compositions of the high and late Middle Ages. One type of polyphony, the motet, has a multilayered texture that frequently combines a scriptural text in one voice part (the tenor) with nonscriptural texts sung by the other voices. Sung liturgical poetry (including hymns, sequences, and tropes), although nonscriptural, often employs biblical language and imagery and transmits medieval interpretations of the Bible. Medieval music drama represents yet another way of performing the Bible in song; liturgical dramas and other sung “plays” contain a mixture of biblical and newly composed texts.


In the Middle Ages, the Latin liturgy of the Christian church was the context for the performance of chant, much of which was sung to texts from the Latin translations of the Bible. The annual cycle of Sundays and feasts in the church year followed the outline of the life of Christ and the other events recounted in the New Testament. The Eucharist, the liturgy of the Mass, commemorated both the Last Supper and Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The Divine Office unfolded in a series of eight separate services of prayer and praise: Vespers in the late afternoon, Compline in the evening, Matins between midnight and dawn, Lauds around daybreak, Prime early in the morning, Terce in the late morning, Sext at noon, and finally None in the middle of the afternoon. The times at which the hours of the office were sung also reflected the influence of the Bible: the sixth-century monastic Rule of Benedict presents the night office (called Matins or Nocturns) as an illustration of the verse “At midnight I arose to confess to you” (Ps 118:62), and all the other hours of the office as realization of the verse “Seven times a day have I praised you” (Ps 118:154). The Rule cites Psalms also for the manner of singing: “We must always remember, therefore, what the Prophet says: Serve the Lord with fear [Ps 2:11], and again, Sing praise wisely [Ps 46:8], and In the presence of the angels I will sing to you [Ps 137:1]. Let us consider, then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels, and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”

The Gregorian chant predominated in most of western Europe after the eleventh century. (Other regional traditions of Latin chant, including the old Roman, Milanese, Beneventan, and Old Hispanic, differed from each other in style and in the designations of the liturgical functions of specific chants.) All the texts of the liturgy were performed vocally, whether they were chanted to a repetitive cantillation-like recitation formula or sung to a more or less elaborate melody. Chant melodies were classified according to a system of eight plainchant modes that originated in the Christian East in the early Middle Ages and were developed further in the Latin West in the ninth century.

In the medieval Latin liturgy, biblical texts from diverse sources were combined and also juxtaposed with nonscriptural ones. The selection and combination of biblical texts in the chants and readings of the liturgy reflect systems of interpretation that parallel the readings of these same texts by patristic and medieval commentators. The annual cycle of biblical readings at Mass (particularly the Gospel pericopes) reflected the basis of medieval liturgical theology and provided the foundation for interpretations of feasts and seasons of the church year that were made manifest in the liturgical structures that grew up around them. Chants for the Mass divide into the categories of ordinary (sung to the same text at each service) or proper (sung to a text particular to a liturgical occasion). Chants could be made more specific to their liturgical occasion through alteration of the biblical text and combination with texts from other sources.

The psalms in liturgical chant.

The central importance of the psalms as texts for most genres of chant is closely allied with the history of patristic commentary that was also the basis for the omnipresence of the psalms in the liturgical observances of monks. Christians in the Middle Ages (lay and clerical) learned to read using the Psalter. Christian exegesis interpreted the Old Testament allegorically and typologically, reading the Psalms through the filter of Christology. Biblical texts in chants of the medieval Latin liturgy are most frequently drawn from Psalms, although other scriptural books take on prominence according to the season of the church year (see below). Many chant texts are taken from early Latin translations of the Psalms, known collectively as the “Vetus Latina” or “Old Latin” tradition. Another early translation known as the Roman Psalter, attributed to Jerome, is found in many chant texts. Starting in the Carolingian period, psalmody increasingly made use of the Latin version of the Psalms known as the Gallican Psalter, which is a revision that Jerome made of an existing Latin translation by consulting the Septuagint translation as well as Origen’s Greek Hexapla edition.

The liturgical use of psalm verses and rearrangement of their constituent parts adapts them to the theological and ritual purpose of a particular occasion and of a chant’s function in the sung liturgy. The Introit, which was sung while the clergy approached the altar to begin Mass, consisted of an antiphon followed by psalm verses and then repeated. In performance, the psalm verses became an introduction to the repeat of the antiphon, and this temporal framework affected their perceived meaning. One salient example is the use of verses taken out of order from Psalm 138 (18, 5–6, and 1–2) in the Introit for Easter Sunday. The Introit antiphon (the first part of the chant) begins with the second half of verse 18 (“I rose up”), after which the first two verses of the psalm are sung to a formulaic melody, after which the opening of the antiphon is repeated. The reordering of the psalm text gives it a new meaning that suits the liturgical occasion well; moreover, the word exsurrexi (I rose up) in the psalm text has been changed in the chant to Resurrexi, adapting the psalm to refer to the Resurrection.

In the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, the Introit on important feasts was frequently sung with tropes, which are insertions of newly composed music and text into existing chants. One category of trope consists of purely melodic additions; another type comprises prosulae (new texts created for existing melodies). The third type of trope consists of newly composed units of music and text that complement an existing chant by commenting on and expanding on the ideas in the chant text and rendering it more specific to a liturgical occasion. Tropes can point to connections with other biblical texts as well as elaborating on the text of the base chant. The dozens of tropes that were composed for chants, such as the Introit Resurrexi, show the influence of biblical exegesis on composers of medieval chant. Some tropes were sung in their entirety before a chant, constituting an introduction, while others were sung in between the phrases of the chant, interwoven with its text in the manner of a gloss.

The next proper chant in the order of the Mass, the Gradual, was a responsorial psalm sung by a soloist with response from the choir. The sermons of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.) refer to the congregation’s response to the soloist, but by the Middle Ages the choir sang the Gradual in dialogue with the cantor. In the medieval Mass, the Gradual was the first of the three chants sung between the two readings (the Epistle and the Gospel); the other two were the Alleluia and the sequence. All three of these chants took on theological significance from their liturgical context, which included both the occasion in the church year on which they were sung and their positioning within the Mass as moments of musical reflection between the readings. The meanings of the chants in performance complemented the associations that the texts acquired from biblical exegesis. For example, the Gradual Haec dies for Easter Sunday is set to a verse taken from Psalm 117:24; the ancient assignment of this verse to Easter endows the phrase “this is the day” with a meaning specific to the Christian celebration of the Resurrection. In the Enarrationes in Psalmos, Augustine interprets the psalm verse “this is the day which the LORD has made” as meaning “this is the day on which the Lord gave me salvation.”

The Alleluia, sung after the Gradual except in penitential seasons, consisted of a florid melody sung to the Hebrew word Alleluia, followed by a verse often taken from Psalms (and, as the repertory expanded, from other books of the Bible as well). The Alleluia was not sung at Mass during penitential seasons; in its place, a Tract was sung on Advent Ember Saturday, during the Lenten and pre-Lenten season, and on feasts that fell in Lent. Most Tracts are sung to verses taken in order from Psalms; the canticles of Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are taken from Habakkuk, Exodus, Isaiah, and Deuteronomy. Unlike the other psalm-based genres of chant, the Tract is sung by a soloist without any choral response or refrain. The melodic structure of Tracts closely follows a set formula, and all the melodies are in one of the two church modes (2 or 8). As Emma Hornby (2009) has shown, in Tracts words that are the focus of biblical commentary often receive musical emphasis as well.

Another psalm-based Mass chant, the Offertory, was a responsorial chant for soloist and choir that was performed during the offering of bread and wine at the altar. The custom of accompanying the ritual with singing apparently originated in Rome in the seventh century, at which time the length of the chant in performance seems to have varied according to the duration of the ceremony. The psalm verses used in Offertories are often related to the Gospel read at Mass or are connected to the text of the Introit.

Some chant genres appear to manifest their composers’ intention to use psalm texts in sequence according to the church year; this principle appears to some extent in the introits after Pentecost and is particularly evident in the cycle of communion chants for weekdays in Lent, whose texts are taken from Psalms 1–26 (in numerical order), while those for the Sundays after Pentecost are set to texts from Psalms 1–118. Communion chants for other seasons of the year are set to texts taken from other books of the Bible; the prophetic books provide the texts for communions of Advent and Christmas, and the New Testament is the source of texts for the periods between Christmas and Lent and between Easter and Pentecost. Communion chants represent a variety of musical styles, but according to James McKinnon (2001), this repertory is an example of large-scale compositional planning in the allocation of scriptural texts to liturgical seasons.

In addition to Mass chants with texts taken from Psalms, the chanting of entire psalms to recitation formulas was the central element of the hours of prayer in the Divine Office, which was organized in a daily cycle of eight services. The psalms were sung with brief refrains known as antiphons, with texts frequently also taken from the Psalms. The choice of a psalm for the antiphon text could reflect principles of allegorical interpretation. The sixth-century Rule of Benedict prescribed a cycle of psalms that ensured the chanting of the entire Psalter in a week, and the psalms remained the centerpiece of the Divine Office. Certain psalm verses were sung at the same time each day. The Night Office (Matins, called Nocturns in the Rule) began with Psalm 51:17 chanted three times: “Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Domine, labia mea aperies et os meum adnuntiabit laudem tuam) followed by Psalm 3, and then Psalm 94, “Come, let us rejoice” (Venite exultemus) with an antiphon. After a nonscriptural hymn, six psalms were sung, each with its own antiphon. Then, a short prose versicle was sung, followed by a blessing of the reader. Three readings were recited, each followed by the singing of a responsory, a lengthy and often ornate chant, often set to a scriptural text. Responsories were also performed at Vespers.

Other scriptural texts in medieval chant.

The books of the Old Testament were a major source for the great responsories of the Divine Office, which were elaborate compositions with lengthy and sometimes quite florid melodies. Many responsories have texts drawn from the same biblical book that was recited immediately before the responsory was sung. For instance, on Septuagesima and Sexagesima Sundays, and throughout Lent, both the lessons and the responsories are taken from the book of Genesis. In the summer, after Pentecost, the antiphons of Matins as well as the responsories were taken from the same Old Testament books that furnished the lessons. Responsories composed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries sometimes reinterpreted texts from the Old Testament, even without quoting them literally. For instance, the liturgical use of Isaiah 11:1 influenced the texts of several new chants with nonscriptural texts, the best known being the responsory Stirps Jesse (the root of Jesse) performed on feasts of the Virgin Mary: “The root of Jesse produced a rod, and the rod a flower, and on this flower rests the nourishing spirit. The rod is the virgin mother of God, and the flower is her son. And on this flower rests the nourishing spirit.” The text of the responsory offers a Christological interpretation of the root of Jesse in Isaiah 11:1 (“And a rod shall come forth from the root of Jesse, and a flower shall ascend from his root”). Christian commentators on Isaiah frequently conflated the flowering rod of Isaiah’s prophecy with the blossoming rod of Aaron in Numbers 17. The allegorical reading that cast the rod as the Virgin Mary, and the flower it produced as Christ, became an important image in many chants sung on feasts of the Virgin Mary and during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Several liturgical readings from Isaiah were also performed during Advent. On these occasions, understood by Christian exegetes to signal the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, references to the text of Isaiah constituted a mode of interpretation that set forth the allegorical reading of the prophetic book through song.

Chant texts based on biblical passages frequently contain minor changes to the texts, perhaps a result of the translation used, but possibly reflecting intentional modification of their substance or expression. In the Old Hispanic threni (“Lamentations”) sung at Mass during Lent between the Old Testament and Epistle, adjustments to the texts and musical emphasis emphasize ideas that are stressed in patristic commentary on their Old Testament sources (principally Lamentations, Jeremiah, and Job). As Emma Hornby and Rebecca Maloy (2013) have shown, many adjustments to the biblical texts quoted in the Threni cast them in the first person singular, which corresponds to the patristic reading of the biblical passages as the voice of Christ and the church. Exegesis by Augustine and Isidore, as well as by Gregory the Great, influenced both the selection of the scriptural texts from their sources and the musical emphases in the chant settings.

In the medieval liturgy, many biblical texts besides the Psalms were chanted to recitation formulas, including the canticles from the Old and New Testament. The office of Lauds included the Benedictus (Luke 1:68–79), sung to its own particular tone; in addition, a different brief canticle from the Old Testament was sung every day of the week at Lauds. The Magnificat (Luke 1:46–66) was sung daily at Vespers to a specific tone; likewise, the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:9–32), known by its incipit as the Nunc dimittis, was sung at Compline. Psalm 94 was chanted at the beginning of Matins to a special tone, and in alternation with an antiphon; this psalmody was known as the Invitatory. When the Gospel was recited at Mass and during the office of Matins, the melodic formula that was employed varied by occasion. There was a special tone for the recitation of the Genealogy of Christ; the one from the Gospel according to Matthew (Liber generationis) was sung on Christmas Eve, and the one from Luke on Epiphany.

The Bible in Liturgical Poetry.

The vast corpus of medieval sung liturgical poetry, which is by definition nonscriptural, consists of hymns (stanzaic poems for the hours of the Divine Office), sequences (poems sung during Mass), and tropes (additions to existing chants).

Hymns, which emerged as a genre in late antiquity in the context of doctrinal disputes, can be described as a form of sung theology. Thus, hymns such as those of Ambrose often frame biblical events and subjects in the idiom of late Latin poetry rather than in the language of the Latin Bible. Although most hymns in the core repertory make rather indirect reference to the Bible, “Ad coenam agni providi” for Easter and “Urbs beata Jerusalem” for the annual feast commemorating the dedication of a church, employ terms and images from the book of Revelation. The hymns that Peter Abelard wrote for Heloise’s convent of the Paraclete also make extensive use of Old Testament typology. In addition to these hymns, Abelard wrote musical laments of Old Testament figures such as Dinah.

Medieval sequences and tropes are a form of biblical exegesis within the liturgy. By the tenth century sequences were sung between the Alleluia and the Gospel at Mass on important days in the church year, and their texts often reflect both on the liturgical occasion and on the Alleluia as a musical representation of angelic song. The earliest sequences are written in a heightened prose that is poetic in its language and densely theological in content. Sequences frequently refer to Old Testament figures and symbols. Early sequences for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary describe her in evocative language informed by the Song of Songs, the source of texts for many of the chants sung in the Divine Office on the feast of the Assumption. By the twelfth century, the longstanding association of Mary with the Song of Songs and with images from the Old Testament appeared in many Marian sequences. A typical instance is Hildegard of Bingen’s O viridissima virga, which combines epithets from the Song of Songs with the image of the flowering rod of Aaron.

The texts of sequences composed in France in the eleventh and twelfth centuries are written in fully rhyming accentual poetry that made eloquent use of new developments in biblical exegesis. For example, the twelfth-century Parisian sequence Laudes crucis attollamus, sung on the feasts of the Cross, equates Noah with Christ and the ark with the Cross, drawing on the typological reading of the Old Testament central to the exegesis of the period.

As Margot Fassler (2011) has shown, many tropes explore the same themes as medieval commentators on the liturgy, and tropes were themselves a form of liturgical commentary, functioning as a gloss on the chants into which they were interpolated. These commentaries, and the corresponding poetic texts in tropes, illuminate the meaning of the individual chants, of the ritual actions they accompany, and of the feast days on which they are performed. In many cases, the tropes and sequences refer directly to the act of singing, which is presented as re-enacting and commemorating the biblical precedent of the angels singing. This is particularly the case of the ordinary chants for which the base text remained the same, rather than changing for specific liturgical occasions. In the central Middle Ages these chants were embellished with numerous tropes. The Gloria of the Mass is in effect a musical imagining of the moment in Luke 2:13–14 when the heavenly host declares: “Glory to God on High and peace on earth.” The Sanctus is interpreted as the song of the cherubim intoning “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Isaiah 6:3, and thus numerous trope texts refer to the idea of angelic song. Another Mass ordinary chant that quotes scriptural texts is the Agnus Dei (John 1:29).

Two new forms of Latin sung poetry emerged in the twelfth century: the versus and conductus. The musical form of these compositions was typically strophic (like that of the office hymn) with the same melody sung to each stanza of the poem. Although the sacred texts in these genres lack a clear liturgical function, they can be closely tied to the liturgical year, and, like the sequence, they reflect the theological and biblical preoccupations of the period. For instance, the twelfth-century sequence “Rex Salomon fecit templum” refers to the allegorical interpretation of the Virgin Mary as the Temple of Solomon. In the same period, wooden sculptures of Mary as the Throne of Wisdom were being carved throughout western Europe. In conductus texts Mary is described as the Throne of Wisdom along with many other Old Testament epithets such as the Ark of the Covenant, the burning bush, Gideon’s fleece, and Jacob’s ladder. Both versus and conductus were set in polyphony for two or three voices as well as in monophony.

Music Drama.

The origins of medieval music drama can be found in the performance of the liturgy. The sung liturgy of Holy Week has a heightened solemnity including the chanting of the Passions on designated days, which were sung to a special tone by multiple clerics. Since the early Middle Ages, participants in the procession of palms on Palm Sunday traced the sacred geography of their own place on the processional route while reenacting the Entry into Jerusalem, singing chants that gave voice to the figures in the biblical events.

Beginning in the tenth century, nonscriptural musical dialogues enacting the visit of the three Maries to the sepulcher were performed within the Mass or Office in many churches on Easter Sunday. Some of these dialogues were tropes that introduced the Introit of the Mass with a dialogue between the women and the angel at the empty tomb, beginning with the question Quem queritis? (Whom do you seek?). Other compositions were lengthy and complex. Even though the dialogues are often considered to be a form of drama, they were sung by vested participants within liturgical services, bringing the events of Easter into the ritual time of the present by representing the Gospel narrative in song. The style of the newly written sections was similar to that of the chants they complement in performance.

In the twelfth century, musical representations of the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the visit of the Magi created new modes of performance for the biblical narratives of the infancy Gospels. In these miniature “dramas,” the prose versions of the biblical narrative are interwoven with liturgical antiphons. Following on the Magi plays are those that represent the Massacre of the Holy Innocents based on the narrative in Matthew 2. These compositions bring to life the interpretation of the biblical narrative that had been expressed by generations of exegetes. The selection of chants equates the Innocents with the souls who call out for vengeance in Revelation 4 and the 144,000 blessed in Revelation 14. The lament of Rachel in these miniature music dramas reflects the emphasis in exegesis on Matthew’s quotation from Jeremiah 31:15, using Rachel as a figure of the mourning mothers at Jerusalem. Exegetes linked Rachel’s historical meaning as the wife of Jacob in Genesis 29 to her allegorical dimension as a figure of the church (in opposition to Leah, Jacob’s first wife, who was understood as the Synagogue).

The vernacular had a place in musical representations of the Bible starting in the twelfth century. The musical dialogue known as the “Sponsus” (Bridegroom), which expands on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1–14, was written around 1100 in a combination of Latin and Old Occitan. The Archangel Gabriel addresses the Wise Virgins with the admonition “Do not fall asleep” (Gaire no i dormet), and the refrain “We, wretched in our grief, have slept too long” is repeated throughout the performance after each line sung by the foolish virgins. “O Maria deu maire,” the earliest preserved text in Occitan, is a song from around 1100 that comments on the story of Adam and Eve.

Vernacular passages also appear in one of the best known musical compositions of the entire Middle Ages, the Play of Daniel (Ludus Danielis), a sung drama composed in the twelfth century that dramatizes the book of Daniel. According to Margot Fassler (1992), this composition was a reformed version of the annual clerical festivity, the Feast of Fools, celebrated by the subdeacons on January 1, and the biblical figure of Daniel was a role model for the young men in minor orders who created and performed the work.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a new genre of the Passion play emerged. Some early examples that essentially embellish the Passion narratives in the Gospels appear to be linked with the services of Holy Week. The so-called Benediktbeuern Passion Play (preserved in the thirteenth-century manuscript that also contains the corpus of Latin and Middle High German poetry known collectively as the Carmina Burana, or “songs of Beuron,” after the Benedictine monastery in whose library the manuscript was held) begins with a Lenten responsory describing the entrance of Pontius Pilate and continues with dialogue based on the Gospel of Luke, followed by a series of chants for the procession on Palm Sunday. While much of the Carmina Burana Passion Play is in Latin verse, it contains some vernacular speeches by Mary Magdalene, occasionally interrupted by brief passages from the Gospel narratives of the Passion and by chants with scriptural texts, all directly related to the chants sung during Holy Week.

The layering of biblical texts and personages with the vernacular extensions or embellishing of biblical narrative creates a multiplicity of voices that could be called polyphonic. The same period saw the emergence of the motet, a new musical genre in which multiple voices sang different texts, in Latin and the vernacular.


Motets are polyphonic compositions with two, three, or four voices set to at least two different texts. The melody of the tenor (which is usually the lowest voice) is usually part of a chant; the tenor text of this excerpt is a single word or phrase often taken from the Bible. The other texts, sung by the upper voice(s), are nonscriptural Latin or Old French poetry. In general, the Latin texts used in motets are sacred, while the French ones are secular. The earliest motets, composed before the middle of the thirteenth century, seem closely related to organa (polyphonic chant settings performed in the liturgy). Many two-voice motets of the thirteenth century seem to have existed in multiple forms; as musical settings without a poetic text, they were discant clausula that could be sung within the performance of organum (a compound structure in several parts).

Many motets exist in “complexes” of interrelated compositions that share some voice parts but are not exactly the same. Several motets of the thirteenth century are based on a tenor melody with the text Flos filius eius, which comes from the responsory for feasts of the Virgin Mary, Stirps Jesse. Often, the French poetry of the upper voices refers directly or obliquely to the words of the tenor in the language of the courtly love lyric. As David Rothenberg (2011) has shown, the conjoined sacred and secular meanings in thirteenth-century motets are part of a centuries-long tradition in which veneration of the Virgin Mary was enriched by the connotations of secular song. The text of this responsory states that Christ is the flower that blossoms from the root of Jesse. In the Middle Ages, exegetes interpreted Isaiah 11:1–12 allegorically to produce just such a Christological interpretation. Some motets based on the Flos filius eius tenor had Latin texts in honor of the Virgin Mary, while others used French texts that explore the standard themes of love poetry in the same period. Combining such texts heightened the idealizing tradition of describing Mary’s beauty; at the same time, the juxtaposition of sacred and secular created an aesthetic in which a female object of desire was implicitly compared to the incomparable Virgin Mary. The musical setting of these texts reinforced the parallel.

Another telling example is the use of a chant melody from a psalm verse (Confitemini domino quoniam bonus quoniam in seculum misericordia eius) as the verse of the Gradual Hec dies quam fecit Dominus, for the mass on Easter Sunday. Since Easter was frequently associated with the renewal of springtime, vernacular texts in motets based on the “In seculum” tenor referred to the spring season as the time for the blossoming of love, and some described pastoral encounters between shepherds and shepherdesses.

Various theories exist about the medieval performance of motets, arising primarily from the fact that it is difficult for a listener to distinguish among and comprehend the different texts when they are sung simultaneously. No single piece of evidence can explain exactly how the motets were performed in the thirteenth century. The singers (perhaps the principal audience) could have understood all the texts, and the owners (and users) of motet manuscripts could peruse them at their leisure. In any case, the motet can be said to constitute a form of allegorical reading through music. Sylvia Huot (1997) has pointed out that the allegory is clear from a comparison of French motets to Latin motets based on the same tenor. Moreover, the composers of motets clearly drew on the resonances of biblical motives such as a lover entering a garden (with sacred associations in the Christian allegorical reading of the Song of Songs) to deepen the meaning of secular poetry about lovers in a garden.

From the textual point of view the vernacular motet is something of a hybrid, linked to the clerical world of the liturgy through its liturgical tenor and yet equally connected to vernacular literature (and particularly the love lyric) through the French upper voices. The excerpts from biblical texts in motets are mediated through two filters: one of their context in the liturgy (the function of the liturgical chant setting from which the excerpt comes) and one of an extended meaning implied by allegory (the relationship between the chant fragment in the tenor and the poetry of the other voices). Although the biblical texts are represented by a single word or a brief phrase, their associations in the Bible and in the liturgy often color the meaning of the other texts employed in the motet. The other texts in a motet referred implicitly or explicitly to the biblical text, creating a layering of meaning that would have been comprehensible only to a select audience, perhaps only to those who sang motets and had access to the manuscripts in which they were preserved.

In the fourteenth century, the motet continued to employ many biblical texts as tenors while broadening to encompass a wider range of themes in the upper voices (including polemics and political statements). Motets in the early-fourteenth-century manuscript collection of music interpolated in the vernacular narrative Roman de Fauvel are more learned than the thirteenth-century ones that drew on love poetry.

The motets of the great composer-cleric Guillaume de Machaut (1300–1377), which date from the middle and third quarter of the fourteenth century, are the apotheosis of the hybrid, allegorical motets of the previous century; their profound reflection on love has been interpreted by Anne Walters Robertson (2002) as outlining an allegorical journey to salvation similar to the one described by the mystic Henry Suso (1300–1366) in his Horologium Sapientiae (ca. 1333). Machaut wrote both the texts and the music of his compositions. Machaut’s use of liturgical tenors draws on both the traditional allegorical interpretations of the scriptural citations in the source chants and the symbolism of the chants themselves within the liturgical year. For example, the tenor “Quia amore langueo” (For I am sick with love) in Machaut’s motet 14 comes from an antiphon for Vespers on the feast of the Assumption, a Marian association that is reflected indirectly in references to the distant lady in the two upper voices’ French texts. The principal subject of the upper voices is unrequited love, which connects the composition as a whole to the biblical source of the antiphon, Song of Songs 5:8. Allegorical readings of the Song of Songs as a Marian text connect the tenor to the upper voices even more directly than its liturgical association with the Assumption.

Frequently, the liturgical context of a motet tenor suggested themes for the poetry of the upper voices. In his motet number 1, Machaut drew the text “Amara valde” (intensely bitter) from a responsory for Holy Saturday that was ultimately derived from Joel 1:8 and Zephaniah 1:14; the French upper voices describe suffering for love. The liturgical function of the tenor implies that the longing for love can be interpreted as the grieving of the disciples for the Dead Christ and their eager desire for him that is commemorated in the liturgy of Holy Saturday. Likewise, in motet 10, which has a tenor text taken from the Gradual for Maundy Thursday and found in many Passiontide texts, “Obedient unto death,” the upper-voice French poetry describes the suffering of unrequited love.

Sometimes the meanings of the tenor voice’s text—and not necessarily the liturgical function of the chant melody from which it was taken—inspired the themes of the poetry Machaut created for the other voice parts. In Machaut’s motet number 3, a tenor melody with a text taken from the book of Job (“Why did I not die?”) inspired texts in the upper voices that describe suffering so severely for love that the speaker desires only death. In motet 7, which has a tenor melody with a text from 2 Samuel 18:33 (“That I might die for you”), the French texts of the upper voices refer to unrequited love that may cause one to die from sheer grief.

Liturgical Polyphony for Mass and Office.

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, for some important feasts, composers at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris wrote polyphonic Mass proper chants and office responsories. The style of Parisian organa soon spread all over Europe through its manuscript transmission. Most polyphony for the mass composed in subsequent centuries consisted of polyphonic settings of the Mass ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei).

[See also MASS.]


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Susan Boynton