Guillaume Dufay (c. 1400 - 1474)
"He is the most important ornamentof our age", said Piero de'Medici, father of Lorenzo de'Medici, in 1467 ofGuillaume Dufay. The high esteem in which this leading composer of the laterMiddle Ages was held is reflected in the fact that more of his music and moredetails of his life survive than for other contemporaries; the personality of acomposer stands out from the anonymity of history. There is no certain evidencefor the place and date of birth of Dufay, but it is known that in August 1409 CambraiCathedral admitted a new choirboy under the name Willemet, little William, who,in 1414, became clericus altaris, under the name Willerrnus du Fayt. CambraiCathedral counted at the time as one of the richest cathedrals of the regionwith good connections with Antwerp, Arras, Lille, Tournai andthe seat of the Burgundian court in Brussels. Dufay's travels beganat the same time as the Council of Constance, which was held from 1414 to 1418.
It is not certain whether he was present at the Council, of which it isreported that over 1700 musicians attended from all countries, exchanging theirknowledge, an important influence on composers of the time, but in hiscompositions the effects of this Council can certainly be seen.
Dufay's travels took him in 1420 to theAdriatic coast in the service of the Malatesta family, with whom he maintainedlong and friendly relations. There he wrote the ballade Resveillies vous forthe wedding celebrations of Carlo Malatesta da Pesaro; Mon chier amy appearsto have been written for the death of his friend Pandolfo Malatesta in the year1427. From the same year dates the rondeau Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys, inwhich he bids a sad farewell of his native region of Laon and its much praisedwines and women. Here are also allusions to the dark side of life, with whichDante Alighieri begins his Divina Commedia. From 1428 to 1433 he studiedin Rome, where hecomposed Quel fronte signorille and La dolce vista. In thefollowing years he must have met and become friendly with the composer Gilles Binchois,since this circumstance is recorded by contemporary poets (Martin le Franc, Lechampion des dames). To his knowledge of the highly developed Italianliterature of the time we owe the wonderful programmatic canzona Vergenebe/la on a text by Francesco Petrarca. Numerous contacts with leadingfigures of his time, such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Pope Eugenius IV, forwhom he composed some motets, Antonio Squarcialupi, Johannes Ockeghem, the Medicifamily and the House of Savoy, influenced and enriched his activity as acomposer. The texts of his songs contain very personal aspects of the socialcontexts and political reactions of his time, with which he directly orindirectly came into contact.
In the over two hundred survivingcompositions of Dufay can be observed a strong development of elements ofpersonal style, which, nevertheless, point to the common musical changes of thefifteenth century. The word 'music' is found in two entirely differentmeanings. One of these is the meaning of monophonic music, implied in manyrepresentations of musicians, documents and eye-witness accounts. The greaterpart of the music in daily use was either improvised or semi-improvised and wasfor the most part monophonic, accompanied only by a drone bass or parallelcounterpoint. It is known, for example, that between 1436 and 1456 twohurdy-gurdy players were permanently employed at the Burgundian court and werethere held in high esteem. The music most performed in church was alsomonophonic, although it was partly performed without instruments, since thesewere forbidden. Complex polyphony was generally composed for special occasionsand not for daily liturgical use. Dufay, like almost all the musicians of histime, was employed for most of his life as a church musician, especially as asinger. Monophony, therefore, was the first step in his musical formation.
Traces of this tonal daily repertoire are found, for example, in ray mis mancuer and in the dance-like Ce jour de l' an.
The second meaning of the word 'music' isin the connection with universal studies. With Arithmetic, Astronomy andGeometry, Music belongs as the fourth element of the so-called Quadrivium. Thisstudy is concerned with the relationship between intervals, the mathematicaland logical connection of one note with another. The fundamental complexity ofsounds and mixtures of sounds stands in direct relationship with the complexityof the universe. Dufay refined this music in the service of the Church, amongother things during his five-year employment in the papal chapel in Rome. The greaterpart of his works, Masses, liturgical motets and hymns, were written forspecial church occasions, as, for example, for the Council of Basle in 1438 and1439, in which he represented the Cathedral of Cambrai.
Amusician in the employment of the Church did not depend on the sale of hismusic. It is, therefore, remarkable that Dufay's by-products, his secularsongs, had such encouragement. This appears, if these are seen as thecomposer's own challenge to himself, as a mastering of the problem of thesecond 'music' by experiment. Resvellies vous contains a quantity ofmusical material from the Mass Sine nomine, compressed into a complexlittle composition, for the performance of which, it is reported, Dufay had tobe present for the musicians to be able to play it. The isorhythmic polyphonywas certainly composed for special occasions and for special musicians (as, forexample, Ce jour de I'an for New Year's Day). This is reflected in thepossible notations employed at the beginning of the fifteenth century, which,again, were not for daily use.
Polyphony appears as dialogue betweentenor, cantus and contratenor, terms that signify different functions ratherthan range of voice. The tenor controls the harmonic movement and forms withthe freer cantus a perfect contrapuntal basis, marked by imitation andanswering phrases (Belle, que vous ay je mesfait, Ce jour de I'an), oftenalso in canon (Puisque vous estez campieur, Par droit je puis in Cantus1 and 2). The contratenor is a complementary part, mostly set between the othertwo parts, but often taking up the tenor melody, which lends colour andrhythmic life to the whole dialogue with a particular diction. Its oftenunmelodic and rhythmically complex leaps, as well as the wide range, do notexclude instrumental performance (Par droit, La dolce vista). That thedialogue does not always run smoothly will be evident from the early isorhythmicworks (Belle, que vous ay, Resvelons nous, with canon in tenor and contratenor).
In Dannes I'assault, where a lady is compared to a fortress that will betaken in battle, major and minor thirds are placed near to one another. In hislate Helas mon dueil too, where he achieves the greatest power ofexpression with a simple formal gesture, Dufay experiments with chromaticism,yet he finds in his late compositions a simpler melody which is quietlyembedded in a harmonic setting (Se Iafaceay pale, He/as man dueil, Bon jour,bon mois)
The way from objective spiritualexperiment to heartfelt individual simplicity in the course of the fifteenthcentury is seen also in the change of notation,