Musical Chairs

Professor of Music Emma Dillon discusses a lost, but not forgotten, musical style.
May 2012
It’s not a musical genre you’re likely to find on the Billboard top 100, but the motet, a centuries-old form known for interweaving voices, was instrumental in changing the way audiences interacted with music. In her new book, The Sense of Sound: Musical Meaning in France, 1260-1330, Emma Dillon, Professor of Music and 2012 Penn Fellow, uses evidence of the wider soundscape of medieval culture to contextualize the hallmark sound of the motet.

One notable motet, from 13th-century France, revolves around three sisters’ interpretation of love. While the eldest is singing about the dignity of love, the middle sister’s voice enters, crooning about a specific paramour. Finally, the youngest sister enters the fray, dreaming about love, since she hasn’t yet experienced it. Taken alone, each voice represents a stage of love. But, Dillon says, when they begin to overlap the listener is confronted with a kind of puzzle they must sort through to find new thematic resonance. Though the effect creates potential confusion in the listener, it also challenges them to confront the music in a new way. And though many motets were secular, such as the sisters’ ruminations on love, many were also grounded in religion.

“Some motets even mix languages, maybe Latin and Old French, many deriving from preexistent chants from the liturgy,” says Dillon. “You can’t make out all the words once they begin to layer, but you have a sense that there’s something sacred underpinning it—hence the kind of the moral dilemma of just enjoying the sound versus trying to figure out how these words all relate to the sacred source.”

“Why would you want to create a sound where the words are unavailable, where the sound meant more than the sense than the lyrics? Just as the soundscape of today has effects upon it, so presumably did it in the past.” - Emma Dillon

The genre continued to develop well into the 15th century, sometimes used toward political ends. A famous 14th-century manuscript—the Roman de Fauvel—contained suggestive motet lyrics meant as an admonition for the French king. As for the motet’s audience, music at the time tended to be connected to the noble, rich or learned class. But because Paris was a massively important center in the Middle Ages for the production of music books, Dillon says it is likely people of all classes had at least some access. In one account, an audience member from the 1330s describes listening to a motet performance in a society of learned men. “The writer voices disapproval of the more modern style he hears at this noble gathering,” says Dillon, “so this in itself suggests a kind of environment of informed listening.”

Dillon’s book also explores other musical subtexts from the time. Poets and artists were known to write music or illuminate manuscripts with musical stylings. Many prayer books, for instance, contained what Dillon calls “confrontational imagery”—figures blowing trumpets and similar depictions of musicians clattering in the margins. “The effect is not merely decoration,” says Dillon, “the images inform the readers’ pace and contextualization of the manuscript.”

Next, Dillon plans to explore musical values in the Middle Ages. “I’m thinking of it in practical terms. How much do you pay a troubadour to sing you a song? How much does a manuscript cost? How much does an organ cost? This tells you a lot about the more elusive dimensions of aesthetic and emotional values attached to the musical experience.”