Plainsong and Medieval Music


The language of medieval music: two thirteenth-century motets*

Ardis Butterfielda1

a1 Downing College, Cambridge

The phrase ‘the language of music’, made famous by Deryck Cooke's book of that name, is much repeated in modern music criticism. Is it possible to use this phrase in a medieval context? In what ways is the relationship between music and language in the medieval period best described? The importance of this question is clear when one considers both how high a proportion of medieval music was texted, and conversely, the extent to which the performance of much medieval poetry (even narrative poetry) involved music. We are fortunate that this very large issue has received detailed attention in John Stevens's magisterial account of medieval monophony. My attempt here is to extend the argument into the area of polyphony, concentrating on the nature of compositional activity in thirteenthcentury France. This will include discussion of how far the compositional processes of music and poetry are comparable in this period, and indeed whether they are in any way collaborative. Do the two structural systems – languages, perhaps – of music and words have any effect on each other's system of meaning?


* This article is a revised version of a paper read at the Annual Conference of the Society for French Studies, held at The Queen's University, Belfast, 1–5 April 1992. I am grateful to Brian Stimpson, as chair, for inviting me to participate in the sectional meeting entitled ‘Literature and Music’.