14.11.22, Nosow, Ritual Meanings in the Fifteenth-Century Motet

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Elizabeth Randell Upton

The Medieval Review 14.11.22

Nosow, Robert. Ritual Meanings in the Fifteenth-Century Motet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 292. ISBN: 9780521193474 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Randell Upton
University of California, Los Angeles

This book is a wonderful contribution to musicological scholarship that has the potential to move the discourse on late medieval music forward in interesting and productive ways. Nosow frames his study to facilitate understanding seemingly dissimilar motets written for different performance contexts as a coherent genre in functional (that is, how they were used) rather than structural (that is, how they were put together) terms. Drawing on several decades' worth of scholarship on individual composers and particular works, Nosow demonstrates how fifteenth-century motets were written to be performed in ritual contexts, whether sponsored by religious or civic organizations. This book provides a welcome challenge to musicology's tendency to sort late medieval musical works into separate categories based on an anachronistic divide between "sacred" and "secular," as understood in our own post-Reformation period.

By focusing primarily on the compositional activities of their creators (composers), musicological study of motets followed general practice in twentieth-century musicological scholarship. In such an investigation historical details are chiefly valuable for establishing chronologies of musical works, both within one composer's output and among the compositions of composers who worked in different times and places. But even as scholars searched archives for historical information on composers and patrons, the explicit focus of their analysis remained the comprehension of structural and contrapuntal details of the works themselves, as well as the creation of taxonomies by which surviving works could be sorted. For the late medieval motet the culmination of this approach was Julie Cumming's book The Motet in the Age of Du Fay (Cambridge, 1999), based on her dissertation "Concord Out of Discord: Occasional Motets of the Early Quattrocento" (Berkeley, 1987). Nosow's own dissertation, "The Florid and Equal Discantus Motet Styles of Fifteenth-Century Italy" (UNC-Chapel Hill, 1992) was itself this sort of study. As Nosow points out, since the 1990s musicologists such as Julie Cumming, Craig Wright, Rob Wegman, Philip Weller, Catherine Saucier, and Nosow himself have broadened their inquiry to consider the cultural context of individual motets or repertoires. But the lack of direct historical evidence documenting the performance of many motets has thwarted modern knowledge of the contexts in which these works were written and performed. It is difficult to discuss musical works in their historical context if it is not possible to determine what those contexts were.

To address this problem, Nosow focused his work by asking the question: Why did people write motets? His answer, the thesis of his book, is that "all motets of the fifteenth century originated as ceremonial vehicles, and cannot easily be separated from the rituals of which they formed part" (2). (My answer to Nosow's question would be, "because they got paid to do so"; I would rephrase his central question to ask "What were motets used for?") By focusing on ceremony and ritual Nosow has found a way to comprehend fifteenth-century motets as a coherent group, even though "[t]he specificity of use for the fifteenth-century motet meant that each was fashioned and voiced with particular ends in mind, to meet the exigencies of the moment" (234).

Reflecting its subject matter--musical works famous for their tight structural designs--Nosow's book has a clear and coherent formal plan. There are eight chapters, conceived as two pairs. The first chapter of each pair discusses motet composition and performance in a particular place for particular patrons: the Chapel Royal of Henry V of England, the Veneto cathedrals of Padua, Vicenza, and Treviso, churches and confraternities in Bruges, and the cathedral at Cambrai. The second chapter of each pair discusses theoretical concerns: the motet as religious ritual, the motet as ritual embassy (that is, one particular rhetoric used in many motet texts), motets as the vehicle of contemplation, and motets' role in creating community for the choir and for the observers and other participants in ritual. Overall Nosow discusses a large number of polyphonic musical works (I counted eighty motets, eleven settings of the Mass Ordinary, and four songs) by composers such as John Dunstaple, Johannes Ciconia, and Guillaume Du Fay, among others. He also provides useful overviews of the different kinds of ceremonies for which motets were written, describing civic and ecclesiastic processions, memorials, motets used to end the service of Mass or the offices of Matins and Vespers, and the Flemish lof service. These descriptions provide the reader with a fuller understanding of the range of opportunities and venues in which polyphonic music could be performed, an element often difficult for non-specialists to perceive.

In his understanding of the ceremonial function of processions Nosow makes good use of the model provided by Gordon Kipling's important book Enter The King: Theatre, Liturgy, and Ritual in the Medieval Civic Triumph (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Like Nosow, Kipling set out to find the historical context within which to understand surviving artistic texts, and in doing so uncovered (and demonstrated the significance of) extensive social practice, the processions through which royalty and nobility formally enacted their relationships with their subjects in cities and towns. In his monograph Nosow shows how fifteenth-century motets were not (or, were not only) liturgical vehicles, but rather formed part of civic ceremonial practices involving important and powerful patrons. Like Kipling's processions, these ceremonial practices have been uncovered due to scholarly desire to contextualize surviving musical works.

Two discussions stand out as particularly significant: "The Daily Memorials of Henry V" in chapter one, and "The Motet as Ritual Embassy" in chapter four. These discussions deepen our understanding of three of the most famous (in modern times) motets of the period: Dunstaple's beautiful Veni Sancte Spiritus/ Veni Sancte Spiritus et infunde/ Veni Creator/Mentes tuorum and Preco preheminencie/ Precursor premittitur/ Inter natos; and Guillaume Du Fay's motet for Florence cathedral, Nuper Rosarum Flores. Following Margaret Bent and drawing on chronicles including the Gesta Henrici Quinti and Vita & gesta Henrici Quinti, Anglorum regis, Nosow shows the genesis of Dunstaple's motets (and others) as part of daily memorials established in response to vows sworn by Henry V. But the highlight of the book for me is Nosow's chapter four. Following a suggestion of Michael Long's, Nosow examines the medieval ars dictaminis, the art of letter writing, to discover conceptual models for the newly composed texts of ceremonial motets. Motets are works of formal communication, and Nosow shows how many of them follow the theoretical model precisely, exposing the cultural work that the texts, and by extension the motets, accomplish. That the words of Nuper Rosarum Flores explicitly connect the motet with Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of Florence, and with ceremonial acts involving the pope and the people of Florence has long been known. But recognizing this motet's character as one of ritual embassy allows us to perceive its ceremonial function more clearly: the motet speaks to the Virgin on behalf of the people of Florence, while honoring Pope Eugenius IV as the intercessor between the two. The pope had promised indulgences to everyone attending the consecration, and the motet is the formal vehicle by which the Virgin is asked to intercede with her Son to deliver the promised benefits. The beauty of the music is the vehicle by which the request is demonstrated for the people of Florence who witnessed its performance. In uncovering the rhetorical basis of so many late motet texts, Nosow gives us new means of understanding what the experience of musical performance could have meant in the past.

One problem with this book is its surprisingly thin engagement with scholarship on ritual. Nosow cites two book-length studies to support his definition of ritual: communication scholar Eric Rothenbuhler's Ritual Communication: From Everyday Conversation to Mediated Ceremony (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2000) and religious-studies scholar Catherine Bell's Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). There is room for a far greater engagement with theories of ritual from anthropology, sociology and religious studies in the musicological study of medieval music.

While some musicologists might object to Nosow's providing little newly discovered historical material himself, such a complaint would miss an important point: thanks to the work of scholars in the past few decades it is now possible to compare and analyze the mass of documentation concerning musical practice, composers' lives and works, and the social contexts of music making in ways that bring new understanding to the study of surviving musical texts. Nosow's book is more than a mere summary of existing historical discoveries; rather its synthesis of information and analysis provides a new, useful, and coherent framework within which to understand the late medieval motet.

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Elizabeth Randell Upton

University of California, Los Angeles