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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  November 2014

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION November 2014

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Subject:

Review

From:

Revd Gordon Plumb <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 24 Nov 2014 14:41:32 -0500

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Apologies for a wrong link:here is the review that people may be 

interested in:





 Gordon Plumb





Nosow, Robert. <i>Ritual Meanings in the Fifteenth-Century Motet</i>. 

Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 292. £64.99. ISBN: 9780521193474.



   Reviewed by Elizabeth Randell Upton

        University of California, Los Angeles

        [log in to unmask]





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 <i>The Motet in the Age of Du Fay</i>

(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 <i>lof</i> 

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 <i>Enter 

The King:

Theatre, Liturgy, and Ritual in the Medieval Civic Triumph</i> (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 <i>Veni 

Sancte

Spiritus/ Veni Sancte Spiritus et infunde/ Veni Creator/Mentes tuorum 

and Preco

preheminencie/ Precursor premittitur/ Inter natos</i>; and Guillaume Du 

Fay's

motet for Florence cathedral, <i>Nuper Rosarum Flores</i>. Following 

Margaret

Bent and drawing on chronicles including the <i>Gesta Henrici 

Quinti</i> and

<i>Vita & gesta Henrici Quinti, Anglorum regis</i>, 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 <i>ars dictaminis</i>, 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 <i>Nuper Rosarum 

Flores</i>

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 <i>Ritual 

Communication: From

Everyday Conversation to Mediated Ceremony</i> (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 

2000) and

religious-studies scholar Catherine Bell's <i>Ritual: Perspectives and

Dimensions</i> (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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