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Composer Biography: Guillaume Dufay (c1397 or 1400-1474) (also Du Fay)

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Guillaume Dufay was another of those Franco-Flemish composers that you might not have heard of but on whose music the stuff you really like is based. He lived from sometime around 1397-1400 until 1474, and along with Gilles Binchois (Franco-Flemish, c1400-1460) and John Dunstable (English, c1390-1463), he’s one of the three most important composers of his generation.

In the 15th century, composers were trained as choirboys and later as singers for churches or court chapels. In some cathedrals and chapels, they also learned theory, grammar, mathematics, and other subjects. The Big Deal cities for such studies were Cambrai, Bruges, Antwerp, Paris, and Lyon. (Later, they were joined by Rome, Venice, and other Italian cities.)

Only males were allowed at these schools, although nuns and novices in convents received musical instruction and a few were notable as composers (like Caterina Sforza, Isabella d’Este, and Maria Gonzalez de Aguero). Courts also employed instrumentalists , who were usually minstrels or came from a family of musicians, trained through the apprentice system. Few singers, composers, or performers served only as musicians, most having other duties as servants, administrators, clerics, or church officials. Rulers supported music and competed for the best composers and performers.

The music of Dunstable, Binchois, Dufay, and their contemporaries was considered the only early music worth listening to by Tinctoris in the 1470s, not even considering composers a hundred years earlier to be of value. This attitude has persisted to our time, and most think of that earlier music as pretty alien and incomprehensible. Dufay and his contemporaries created a kind of musical language that blended French concern for structure and rhythmic interest, Italian emphasis on lyrical melodies, and the English preference for sweetly harmonious resonance, including prominent thirds and sixths, and carefully controlled dissonance. These fundamental ingredients persisted into the 15th and 16th centuries and remained important through the 19th century and beyond. Because it was so prevalent in 15th century music, it sounds somewhat familiar to modern ears.

Not much folk or secular music of the time was preserved, and Dufay is credited with being the first to incorporate such tunes into church music. That alone could make him important, but there was really a lot more to his work than that.

He was born (and eventually died) near Cambrai, which is about halfway between the Belgian town of Bruges and Paris, France. He was a Walloon, which has political and language implications. Basically, it means that he and his family spoke French and were more likely to side with the French than the Dutch.

He’s rumored to be the illegitimate son of an unnamed priest and an unmarried woman named Marie du Fayt, probably born in Beersel, which is near Brussels in modern-day Belgium. Marie moved to Cambrai to raise her son, where they lived with a relative who was canon of the cathedral there.

In 1424, he returned to Cambrai because his mother’s canon relative died, and he was living in Bologna by 1426. He became a deacon in Cambrai, and by 1428, he’d become a priest.

His mother died in 1444. She was buried in the cathedral, and Dufay moved into the canon’s long-empty house, which became his permanent residence for the rest of his life. Now that he was back in Cambrai, he was appointed canon of the cathedral (which means that he had certain responsibilities as an official of the church). By then, he was the most renowned composer in Europe and reestablished ties between the court of Burgundy and the cathedral at Cambrai, and that he had many musical visitors, like Busnois, Ockeghem, Tinctoris, and Loyset Compere, all of whom were instrumental (forgive the pun) in the development of the polyphonic style of the next generation.

As a boy, he was recruited by Nicolas Malin to the Cambrai Cathedral. There, he met composers like Nicolas Grenon and Francois le Bertoul and probably began to develop his craft.

He became a clerk at Cambrai Cathedral by 1413/14 and had a paid patronage at the council of Konstanz (now in southern Germany) from 1414-1418. There, he probably studied with Richard de Loqueville, who was a famous harp player. De Loqueville wrote Mass movements that are the earliest compositions to make use of choral and solo polyphony—they’re not plainchant!

The travel bug had bitten Dufay hard. He spent the next 40 years following the sound of music all around continental Europe, which introduced him to all kinds of musical innovations. He possibly heard Henry V’s chapel choir when he passed through Paris in 1420 on his way to Italy.

He left Belgium in 1414 and by 1420-26, he was well-established in Italy as composer for the Carlo Malatesta family at Pesaro or Rimini (stories vary) on the Adriatic coast. The Malatesta family later became notorious due to monstrous behavior on the part of the mercenary soldier Sigismund Malatesta. But that didn’t affect Dufay.

In 1426-28, he went to Bologna, where he became a Papal chapel singer for Cardinal Louis Aleman, along with other distinguished Europeans. He served two periods at the papal chapel at Rome, from 1428-33 and again from 1435-37 during the pope’s exile in Florence and Bologna. There was a papal schism going on, and the pope had to go live somewhere else while the anti-pope sat in Rome.

In 1433, Dufay had wandered away from Malatesta. He went to Turin in 1434 for the marriage of Louis of Savoy to the last Lusignan King of Jerusalem and Cyprus. During a leave of absence from the papal chapel in 1433-35, he made the first of several visits to the court of Savoy, where he served at the court of Duke Amadeus VIII. He returned there again in 1437-39. The duke was a big shot, with territories in southeastern France, northwestern Italy, and western Switzerland, so Dufay presumably met all kinds of musicians and many powerful people heard his music as well.

When the pope fled to Florence in 1435, Dufay followed. There, he composed a motet for the dedication of Brunelleschi’s famous cathedral in 1436. Dufay left the papal service for good in 1437, staying in Florence until 1444.

In 1439, the church council deposed the pope and elected Amadeus. Dufay escaped the conflict between his two major patrons by returning to Cambrai, by then under Burgundian control.

Back home in Cambrai, he served as the administrator of the Cambrai Cathedral and was given an honorary appointment to the chapel of Duke Philip the Good. Philip the Good had a diverse duchy, because his wealth was the result of owning lands through which most trade had to pass, and his courts were colorful and cultured. He housed Walloons, Picards, and Flemings and they were all part of the chivalric order called the Golden Fleece, which was intended to unite the otherwise warring territories in his northern lands. Philip the Good died trying to unite the two disparate parts of his duchy by conquest, which isn’t the sweetest way to go about such things.

After the papal schism was resolved in 1452-53, Dufay returned to Savoy as the honorary chapel master for Duke Louis. But he didn’t stay long. He soon went back to Cambrai, living in his own house and enjoying considerable wealth, and where he stayed for the rest of his life, with occasional forays to Savoy (1452-58). He was once more canon of the Cambrai Cathedral and master of the petites viaires. This is where he wrote his “mature” Masses.

During his life, Dufay wrote at least six Masses (one, a requiem, is lost and there may have been others), 35 other individual Mass movements, four magnificats, 60 hymns and other chant settings, 24 motets (13 isorhythmic and 11 freely composed), 34 plainchant melodies, 60 rondeaux, eight ballades, and 13 other secular songs. In total, he wrote approximately 100 manuscripts that have survived, all copied sometime between the 1420s and the 16th century, spread far and wide, from Spain to Poland, from Italy to Scotland. Sources think that not all of his compositions have been found.

Because of significant stylistic changes between his early works and his late works, he’s considered to provide the musical bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His Masses show a change from single and paired movements (like the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei) to a more thematic complete cycle, as unified by cantus firmus and “motto” openings, where a theme was declared.

In motets, Dufay’s innovative change was from a severe isorhythmic style toward a more homogenous texture, such as the rather famous Ave Regina Coelorum (more on that in a minute), with its bold use of what we now know as C minor chords.

His chansons, mainly using the rondeau form, show a mixture of older French and Italian styles with English elements. Most are for three voices—sacred music tended to use four voices, so this is a departure. He clearly favored duets in the upper voices, which was also an appealing idea to both Pierre de la Rue (c1460-1518) and Josquin Deprez (c1440-1521, and see also my biography of him, coming shortly), who both grew quite famous for exactly this trick.

The earliest datable music by Dufay was connected with two Malatesta weddings, written in 1420 and 1423. The next dated 1426 and was written further north somewhere near Laon. He dedicated a ballade to Nicholas III of Ferrara in 1433. (Nicholas III had his adulterous wife beheaded in 1425, but he was a big music lover and supporter. Henry VIII was just like him. Hmmm.)

In 1438, Dufay wrote a motet honoring a couple of Swiss towns, but then he gets harder to trace until 1454. There are some melodies and works attributed to him that might not have been his, and likewise, there are some attributed to him or to the truly prolific Anonymous that he might have written. He probably traveled a bit, supported by the many royals or church officials with whom he was popular, and surely he composed on demand for various occasions and his own pleasure. He was well-liked enough to be sent on a diplomatic mission in 1446, so maybe he took a break from music in favor of politics for a short while. Some of his music was meant to commemorate a political event, such as the signing of a peace treaty or a reconciliation of emperors and popes, or even the fall of Byzantium (1453). I guess his diplomatic stint was evidence that everyone liked it.

Dufay’s Chansons blend national styles, tossing French characteristics into music composed for Italian patrons, and so forth. French characteristics include long melismas (where voices wiggle around on a single open syllable), frequent syncopations, and some free dissonances (meaning not resolved). Italian elements include smooth vocal melodies, melismas on the last accented syllable of each line of text, and a meter change for the B section (like a chorus after a verse), paralleling the change of meter in a ritornello or Italian Madrigal. English elements include equally melodically important tenor and cantus (main melodic theme and plainchant underpinnings) with acrobatic contratenor parts, filling in the harmonies, sometimes above, sometimes below the tenor. (Earlier French chansons had done this same thing so he wasn’t innovating as much as borrowing. Remember, he was basically French, being a Walloon.)

Most sacred music of the time was in three voices, and resembled the texture of a chanson, with the main melody in the cantus, supported by tenor and contratenor. Sometimes, Dufay wrote the cantus specifically for a motet he was writing, but it was usually more of an embellished paraphrasing of an already existing chant.

He and other composers of the time were fascinated by successions of thirds and sixths after they heard what the English were doing. Twenty-four of his pieces employ fauxbourdon, a sadly under-performed form of music where only the cantus and tenor were written out, the melody moved mostly in parallel sixths and ended each phrase on an octave. The third voice, not written out, was sung in exact parallel a fourth below the cantus, and ended on an open fifth and octave. This form was mostly used for the settings of the simpler Office chants, such as the hymns, antiphons, psalms, and canticles. Usually, only even numbered stanzas were sung this way, with the others sung as plainchant.

Although his music was steeped in Medieval sensibilities, much of his music—especially the chansons—line up nicely almost like modern-day chords, and often, listeners in our time readily understand this music because of it. Back then, music was written—mostly—to be unaccompanied by instruments (a capella), and when instruments do appear, they are treated as another “voice” as opposed to a simple accompaniment. Writing for three voices was most popular, and sometimes, a fourth voice was added to Dufay’s work by a later anonymous composer.

In his later compositions, Dufay employed a fairly secular tone in the tenor (the primary melody, not the singing voice), even when he wrote a Mass. This was common practice, not at all unique to Dufay, and you can still hear it in the works of later composers like J.S. Bach or Johannes Brahms. He composed “Miserere supplicant Dufay,” a four-part setting of the antiphon he’d written for an Agnus Dei movement from the Mass “Ave Regina Caelorum,” to be sung by his death bed.

He died in Cambrai in 1474 after an illness of several weeks, and his will lists tokens of esteem sent by kings and princes. He bequeathed six books of music to his former student Charles of Burgundy, under whose protection he was then residing. He had outlined the details of his own funeral service, requesting that his own motet “Ave Regina Caelorum” be sung during his dying moments. Sadly, it wasn’t possible to comply with singing around his deathbed (I don’t know why not), but the motet contains the words “Miserere tui labentis Dufay” (have mercy on your dying Dufay).

He’s buried in the chapel of St. Etienne in the cathedral of Cambrai, and his portrait was carved onto his tombstone. The cathedral was destroyed and the tombstone was lost for a while, but it was discovered being used to cover a well in 1859, and is now in the Palais des Beaux Arts museum on Lille.

Dufay’s music was relatively unperformed until a resurgence of interest in the late 19th century led to editions and performances in the 20th century.


“A Dictionary of Early Music : From Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton and Company, New York,. 2010

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” edited by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1973

“Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music,” by Manfred F. Bukofzer, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 1950

Written by Melanie Spiller

October 12, 2012 at 10:59 am