The motet as practiced in fourteenth-century France is to modern ears a strange type of music. With its multiple simultaneous texts and structure based on rhythmic repetition in long note values in the lowest voice, it pushes the limits of audibility, at least of our own "top-down" mode of listening. By creating concord out of seeming discord, these pieces reflect an ideal of motet as microcosm, where sounding harmonies reflect inaudible ones. Many scholars working on the medieval motet today (including the present author) take as a starting point a notion best articulated by Margaret Bent: that the motet should be "listened to" outside of real time, by a kind of analytic unpacking of its subtleties that has led to a proliferation of studies of individual motets and small groups of motets based on close examination of words, music, and their intertexts.
In The Monstrous New Art: Divided Forms in the Late Medieval Motet, Anna Zayaruznaya attempts to go beyond these individual studies, focusing on a group of pieces that explore the themes of monstrosity, hybridity, and disjunction. This happens not only in their texts, but more importantly for her purposes through their manipulation of musical tools such as hocketing, a kind of "broken song" that both divides the musical texture between two different voices, creating a sonic rupture, and serves often as the most clearly audible sign of a unifying musical form. Her core group of 6-8 motets composed in just over a half century (c. 1315-70) is dominated by (but not limited to) works associated with Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361), a French court functionary and intellectual who ended his career as Bishop of Meaux. (Zayaruznaya is currently at work on a monograph on Vitry.) Vitry appears to be particularly interested in ideas of hybridity and monstrosity, and he had the poetic and musical tools to embody these ideas in his motets by using fragmented or deformed musical shapes and styles.
Chapter 1, "Songs alive," attempts to conceptualize songs less as works than as bodies. She ranges widely through biological images in medieval music theory treatises and monophonic and polyphonic songs that somehow refer to themselves (and not only the humans who make them) as having shapes or body parts in a way that is distinct from the human who creates them and sends them into the world. This survey culminates with several motets interpolated into the Roman de Fauvel as transmitted in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS fonds français 146, which she uses to posit a kind of "creature concept" that contains a shape that gives it a kind of autonomy, without the rigidity of the later "work concept." As she whimsically puts it, "the ars nova motet is less like a cathedral than it is like a cat" (68). This sense of embodiment lays the groundwork for the creatures she studies in the next two chapters.
"How (not) to write a motet: The exemplary In virtute/Decens," chapter 2, investigates a motet attributed by modern scholars to Philippe de Vitry, through the chimerical figure (or figures) described in Horace's Ars poetica, whose text is paraphrased in the conclusion of the motet's top voice (called triplum). The motet's structure, while at first appearing to be regular, becomes strange through its unusual hocket placement and other forms of rhythmic repetition in the upper voices. Zayaruznaya masterfully shows that these upper-voice rhythms can be seen as outlining a series of four differently-shaped units that parallel the four parts of the monster Horace describes. The motet, whose texts criticize others for inappropriately mixing incommensurate styles and themes, paradoxically creates a model of combining theme and musical idea by mixing the regular talea structure of the genre with irregular units that go against that regularity--in other words, the only way to express an argument against hybridity is through the very hybridity that is criticized. Zayaruznaya notes that Vitry's particular interest in hybrids was fostered in part by an encounter with a zytiron, "a creature with the tail of a fish and the body of an armored knight" (96) probably identifiable with a leatherback turtle.
In chapter 3, "Motet visions of an apocalyptic statue," attention turns to the multi-metal statue from Nebuchadnezzar's dream, transmitted in the book of Daniel. Vitry's Cum statua/Hugo/T. Magister invidie again refers specifically to the image through which she reads the motet. Here too upper-voice rhythmic repetition and poetic schemes delineate a structure different from that of the tenor, with the four distinct stylistic regions of the upper voices paralleling the four separate sections of the statue as described in the triplum text. Zayaruznaya kindly cites my own very tentative identification of a tenor source for this motet but locates a better candidate in an antiphon from a rhymed office for Benedict; after the opening quote, the tenor is either freely composed or has other as yet unidentified borrowings. Certainly, as she points out, the idea of a tenor cobbled together either from multiple sources or from a combination of preexisting and new melody (or both) further evokes the idea of the statue built from different and incompatible materials. I am not entirely convinced by the candidate she gives for a second chant borrowing, but she is surely correct about the first one, and I am glad to have my own work superceded. Zayaruznaya also shows how Vitry's motetus (the lower of the two texted voices) reinforces notions of deceit or false seeming, both by crossing below the tenor, which should be the lowest voice, and by its unusual distribution of text, both of which make its first word, "Hugo," the figurative and literal underpinning of the motet at its opening. This Hugo has not been definitively identified, but Zayaruznaya suggests in passing Hugo di Castello, a Dominican who lectured in Paris in 1337; this possibility will likely be further explored in her planned future work on Vitry. Other aspects of musical style, especially issues of range, rhythm (especially hocket), and text distribution are successfully deployed to relate Nebuchadnezzar's statue to the unknown Hugo.
She then turns to another motet by Vitry whose music is largely lost, Phi millies/O creator, which refers both to Horace's creature and to the statue. Making use of a fragment first described in 2001 but unnoticed by other scholars until now, Zayaruznaya edits for the first time the surviving 149 breves of triplum music. She finds musical parallels between this voice and the music of Cum statua/Hugo, especially the use of hocketing that breaks up words (an unusual practice for Vitry) to illustrate a breakdown of comprehension.
The focus on Nebuchadezzar's statue is expanded into literature in chapter 4, "Interlude: Nebuchadnezzar's dream." Ranging from biblical commentary to versus, complaint to allegorical dream vision, Zayaruznaya finds a remarkable variety of treatments of this image, concluding that Vitry's interpretation stands with that of Machaut and Gower, apart from other authors. As she notes, this chapter is something of an aside, but it might tempt literary scholars who might otherwise feel threatened by the technical aspects of music to engage with her broader argument. This might be a good place to underline that, while there is a good bit of musical discussion in this book, the author does a good job of explaining it in terms that should be clear to an interested lay reader, and she provides a useful glossary as well.
Chapter 5, "Ars nova and division," attempts to draw from the preceding case studies "a toolkit for identifying musical engagement with monstrosity of the fragmented kind" (14). These tools include conflicting rhythmic structures--where the talea of the tenor's repeated rhythmic pattern is overlaid by upper-voice rhythmic repetition that sets up one or more different formal units--as well as voice crossing, the strategic placement of words in the musical texture, and the use of hockets. She applies this toolkit to a several motets that are not strictly speaking concerned with monstrosity but deal with other forms of division, even hybridity, focusing on the themes of division of the body politic, the contradictions of the courtly lady, and the paradox of the Trinity. I find her argument that "division...wields a considerable amount of explanatory power" (220) through much of the fourteenth-century motet repertory less compelling than her work on the Vitrian motets in chapters 2 and 3, but there are useful insights throughout.
In "Epilogue: The poetics of representation," Zayaruznaya suggests a "form-idea" relationship, arguing that motets "reflect broad ideas by means of formal and textural gestures occurring simultaneously on multiple levels" (232). This concept is based less on musical illustration or emotional expression than on analogy or allegory--surely a more appropriate practice for medieval music and one that resonates with the notion of "matiere" articulated by the fourteenth-century writer Egidius de Morino in his elementary treatise on writing motets. This argument does not so much turn away from work done in recent decades on individual motets as extend it, and as such it would seem to have great promise for further work on the motet.
The book is well produced, with few errors and footnotes at the bottom of the page (where they belong!). Musical examples, which she edits anew for this study (with one exception), are clear and well done, though I'll admit I'm not a fan of her practice of using medieval notational symbols with modern scoring. It would have been nice if color images, especially for digitized music manuscripts (promised in the front matter of the book) could have been linked at the supplemental web page, but the black-and-white images in the book are good.
A supplemental resource page at the CUP web site gives audio recordings of most of the musical examples, including the two complete motets on which she focuses attention. The performances are high quality and well produced. It might be carping to wish that all the recordings used voices rather than instruments on the lowest parts (with only two exceptions, both of Fauvel motets with song tenors whose lowest voice is given text), but that may not have been feasible. I could not get the links to work with iTunes, but they worked fine with Windows Media Player.
As Zayaruznaya notes, it is sometimes hard to believe that earlier generations of scholars actually liked medieval motets, but she clearly does, even in their strangeness, and indeed many of us have in fact come to enjoy the medieval motet, for its symbolic play, for the skill with which words and music are fitted together, for the sound in which sometimes complex ideas are embodied. By building a case for how the ideas of monstrosity and hybridity operate in a group of motets particularly associated with Philippe de Vitry, she makes a major contribution to our understanding of this composer-intellectual and of his music. She also gives us a model for investigating other types of "form-idea" in other motets and groups of motets.