Alice V. Clark

title.none: Huot, Allegorical Play in the Old French Motet (Clark)

identifier.other: baj9928.9807.008 98.07.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alice V. Clark, Pennsylvania State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Huot, Sylvia. Allegorical Play in the Old French Motet: The Sacred and the Profane in Thirteenth-Century Polyphony. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. 236. $39.5. ISBN: ISBN 0-804-72717-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.07.08

Huot, Sylvia. Allegorical Play in the Old French Motet: The Sacred and the Profane in Thirteenth-Century Polyphony. Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. 236. $39.5. ISBN: ISBN 0-804-72717-1.

Reviewed by:

Alice V. Clark
Pennsylvania State University

Blame it on Egidius de Morino, a fourteenth-century theorist who wrote a short introductory treatise on how to make a motet. When the music has been composed, he says, divide the text into four parts, and the music into four parts, and combine the text and the music as best you can. Sometimes taking Egidius's statement too much to heart, modern writers on the motet, more than any other genre of medieval music, have tended to dismiss the words as unimportant: written sometimes after the composition of the music, impossible to be understood by ear, motet poetry is--or rather often was said to be--full of literary cliches and not worthy of study by literary scholars or musicologists. Mercifully, the situation has changed in recent years, and the work of Sylvia Huot is one of the reasons. Huot, now a fellow at Pembroke College, Cambridge, began her interest in motet texts with the works of Adam de la Halle, and those earlier studies have now blossomed into a larger consideration of thirteenth-century motets in French.

In a sense this could be seen as a particularly problematic repertory: unlike motets of the fourteenth century, which tend to be formed in a single creative act (despite what Egidius says in his short treatise for "parvuli"), with text and music most often written by the same person at about the same time, the earliest thirteenth-century motets are textings of sections of larger, preexisting works of liturgical polyphony. Moreover, these motets are unstable works, sometimes to an extreme: voices are added and subtracted from source to source, a French text is replaced by a Latin one, or vice versa. Thirteenth-century motets therefore tend to fall into distinct families whose members may be linked only by the use of the same tenor, the lowest line most often based on chant. This makes for a tremendous and almost uncontrollable variety of texts and combinations.

Part of this variety consists of the fact that, while most motet tenors are taken from chant and therefore have Latin texts, the upper voices of the motets Huot considers here are in French and usually on the subject of love. This combination may seem unusual to modern readers (though likely not to the medievalists who read this review), but the creative tension between "sacred" and "secular" forms of love, between what is generally called "courtly love" and Marian devotion, and between different registers of vernacular lyric is part of what fuels these works and inspires the reworkings that are so important to the thirteenth-century motet as a genre.

As Huot points out, while the motet is a learned genre, often full of musical and textual complexities and difficult if not impossible to understand by ear at first hearing, it is also capable of great playfulness in the way disparate elements are brought together: chant and refrains, Latin and French, high- style lyric and lewd comedy. Each work deploys these elements differently, sometimes in ways that seem obvious but sometimes with deliberate ambiguity, using analogy, allegory, or parody (among other strategies) to make its point. Huot therefore takes what many used to see as the motet's principal vice--its bitextuality--and turns it into a virtue as "textual polyphony," where the distinct voices of the text blend as compellingly as do their musical lines. Often no single reading will suffice, and on occasion Huot gives two or more distinctly different interpretations. In this way, she argues, the motet participates in the general literary world of thirteenth-century France, though she sees it as "particularly well suited to cultivating a playful dialectic of sacred and profane discourses." (18)

In her discussions of the various types of love and how these are evoked in motets, Huot naturally makes extensive use of the comparison she calls commonplace, between the literary language of "courtly love" and that of the Marian cult, this last reflected liturgically in the Song of Songs, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from Matthew's Gospel, and Psalm 44, "Eructavit cor meum." She links with these ideas other virgin saints as well, including virgin martyrs such as Agnes, because of their desire for Christ, but I am not so sure that virgin martyrs can be used in this way (see Karen A. Winstead's Virgin Martyrs). In fact, Huot's passing use of Agnes and other female saints is not really necessary for her argument; Mary suffices as allegorical figure, as intercessor and as an "appropriate" love object for human males.

This interaction of two types of love is perhaps best seen in the large group of motets based on the chant fragment "Flos filius ejus," from a responsory for the feast of the Assumption. In the motets of this group one sees the "flower" of the tenor fragment in both the sacred garden of the Song of Songs and the secular one of the Roman de la Rose, and even somehow both at once. (The fact that the "flos" of the chant actually refers to Jesus, Mary's son, adds an additional layer of meaning to the motets in this group, though one that is not directly addressed in most motets.) The "Flos filius" group, including all the French and Latin texts applied to its various motets, is worth a book in itself.

Huot considers not only the French texts used in the upper voices, but also the way those texts are frequently grounded in the tenor, usually taken from liturgical chant. The way the tenor text and its biblical and liturgical contexts inform the symbolic web that is the medieval motet is finally receiving due attention, and Huot's discussion of motets that use the thematic background of Ascension and Pentecost is particularly good. In Huot's motets, the association of Ascension and Pentecost parallels the lover whose beloved is absent, but who is consoled by Love (or the Holy Spirit), who makes him sing (or speak in tongues). The fact that this liturgical season falls in springtime, when flowers bloom, birds sing, and humans fall in love, is not an accident.

I am less convinced of the connection with Christ's Passion Huot sees in a group of motets that use Easter tenors, perhaps because in the fourteenth century I believe the connection becomes more explicit by the use of fragments from chants for Lent and especially Holy Week. The joy of Easter to my mind effaces the sorrow of the Crucifixion. On the other hand, it is true that liturgical polyphony was not allowed during Lent, and the earliest motets similarly avoided using chants for that penitential period; for that reason it could be argued that the only way to make the connection between the lover's sufferings and those of Christ would be to use an Easter chant that would in a sense include a backward look to the events that led to Easter. It is therefore possible to read these motets on Easter chants in the way she does--indeed, the multiplicity of readings available to motets is a belief I share with her, and I intend to consider her interpretation of these motets more carefully as I approach my own repertory.

Huot constantly compares motet texts to examples of other literary forms, not only the Roman de la Rose, but also less well known works, including romances with interpolated lyrics, vernacular parodies of biblical texts such as the Patrenostre d'amours, and the Court de Paradis, which tells of a carol sung and danced in Heaven. These comparisons enrich her discussions, not only by demonstrating that the comparisons she makes were made by medieval authors, but by bringing this formerly marginal poetic type into the center of medieval literary studies.

Huot's discussions naturally focus on the text, but she does on occasion call attention to aspects of their musical treatment, though unfortunately she does not make it easy to follow her argument in the few examples given. Where she draws attention to the coordination of upper-voice statements at a given point in the music, it would have been helpful for her to specify a measure number or provide a graphic sign in the example to allow the reader more easily to find the relevant moment in the score; the only clues she gives are the texts involved and and verse numbers.

Texts, on the other hand, are given in both the original (whether Old French or Latin) and in translation, which is a welcome service to the reader. (The fact that notes are relegated to the back of the book goes against this ease of use, but this is likely the publisher's fault, and the only quibble I have with the otherwise exemplary production of the book.) Indeed the study as a whole should be accessible not only to students of medieval music and literature but to others as well, and I hope this book will help demonstrate that this seemingly esoteric genre has delights of musical harmony and textual polyphony that can be enjoyed by all.