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In Western music, motet is a word that is applied to a number of highly varied choral musical compositions.

The name comes either from the Latin, or a Latinized version of Old French mot, "word" for "verbal utterance;" or it comes from movere, "to move," and describes the movement of the different voices against one another.

According to Margaret Bent (1997), "'a piece of music in several parts with words' is as precise a definition of the motet as will serve from the thirteenth to the late sixteenth century and beyond. This is actually very close oto one of the earliest descriptions we have, that of the late thirteenth-century theorist Johannes de Grocheio."

Table of contents
1 Medieval motets
2 Renaissance motets
3 Baroque motets
4 More recent motets
5 Source

Medieval motets

The earliest motets arose, in the thirteenth century (Bent, 1997), out of the organum tradition exemplified in the Notre Dame school of Leonin and Perotin. The motet arose from discant (clausula) sections, usually strophic interludes, in a longer sequence of organum, to which upper voices were added. Usually the discant representing a strophic sequence in Latin which was sung as a descant over a cantus firmus, which typically was a Gregorian chant fragment with different words from the descant. The motet took a definite rhythm from the words of the verse, and as such appeared as a brief rhythmic interlude in the middle of the longer, more chantlike organum.

Increasingly in the 14th and 15th centuries, motets tended to be isorhythmic; that is, they employed repeated rhythmic patterns in all voices - not just the cantus firmus - which did not necessarily coincide with repeating melodic patterns. Philippe de Vitry was one of the earliest composers to use this technique, and his work evidently had an influence on that of Guillaume de Machaut, one of the most famous named composers of medieval motets.

The practice of descant over a cantus firmus marked the beginnings of counterpoint in Western music. From these first motets arose a medieval tradition of secular motets. These were two or three part compositions in which several different texts, sometimes in different vernacular languages, were sung simultaneously over a Latin cantus firmus that once again was usually adapted from a passage of Gregorian chant. It is suspected that, for the sake of intelligibility, in performance the cantus firmus and one or another of the vocal lines were performed on instruments.

Renaissance motets

The name of the motet was preserved in the transition from medieval to Renaissance music, but the character of the composition was entirely changed. While it grew out of the medieval isorhythmic motet, the Renaissance composers of the motet generally abandoned the use of a repeated figure as a cantus firmus. Guillaume Dufay was a transitional figure; he wrote one of the last motets in the medieval, isorhythmic style, the Nuper rosarum flores which premiered in 1436 and was written to comemmorate the completion of Filippo Brunelleschi's dome in the Cathedral of Florence. During this time, however, the use of canti firmi in works such as the parody mass tended to stretch the cantus firmus out to great lengths compared to the multivoice descant above it; this tended to obscure the rhythm supplied by the cantus firmus that is apparent in the medieval isorhythmic motet. The cascading, passing chords created by the interplay between multiple voices, and the absence of a strong or obvious beat, are the features that distinguish medieval and renaissance vocal styles.

Instead, the Renaissance motet is a short polyphonic musical setting in imitative counterpoint, for chorus, of a religious text not specifically connected to the liturgy of a given day, and therefore suitable for use in any service. The texts of antiphons were frequently used as motet texts. This is the sort of composition that is most familiarly named by the name of "motet," and the Renaissance period marked the flowering of the form.

In essence, these motets were sacred madrigals. The relationship between the two forms is most obvious in the composers who concentrated on sacred music, especially Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose "motets" setting texts from the Canticum Canticorum, the Biblical "Song of Solomon," are among the most lush and madrigal-like of Palestrina's compositions, while his "madrigals" that set poems of Petrarch in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary would not be out of place in church. The language of the text was the decisive feature: if it's Latin, it's a motet; if the vernacular, a madrigal. Religious compositions in vernacular languages were often called madrigali spirituali, "spiritual madrigals." Secular motets continued to be written; these motets typically set a Latin text in praise of a monarch or commemorating some public triumph; the themes of courtly love often found in the medieval secular motet were banished from the Renaissance motet. This was of the pre-eminent forms of Renaissance music. Other important composers of Renaissance motets include:

Baroque motets

The name "motet" was preserved into Baroque music, especially in France, where the word was applied to petits motets, sacred choral compositions whose only accompaniment was a basso continuo; and grands motets, which included instruments up to and including a full orchestra. Jean-Baptiste Lully was an important composer of this sort of motet. Lully's motets often included parts for soloists as well as choirs; they were longer, including multiple movement in which different soloist, choral, or instrumental forces were employed. Lully's motets also continued the Renaissance tradition of semi-secular Latin motets in works such as Plaude Laetare Gallia, written to celebrate the baptism of King Louis XIV's son; its text by Pierre Perrin begins:

Plaude laetare Gallia
Rore caelesti rigantur lilia,
''Sacro Delphinus fonte lavatur
Et christianus Christo dicatur.

(Rejoice and sing, France: the lily is bathed with heavenly dew. The Dauphin is bathed in the sacred font, and the Christian is dedicated to Christ.)

The Baroque grand motet eventually merged with the cantata.

Johann Sebastian Bach also wrote six surviving works he called motets; Bach's motets were relatively long pieces in German on sacred themes for choir and basso continuo. Bach's motets are:

More recent motets

More recent composers have occasionally ventured into the motet form; usually their works derive from the Renaissance motet, and are a cappella choral compositions. Anton Bruckner wrote a number of motets in the nineteenth century.