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Composer Biography: Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377)

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Although you might never have heard of him, Guillaume de Machaut is famous for his poetry as well as his musical compositions. Medievalists love him because he demarks the end of the true medieval era—both the style of his music and his poetry change: from monody (one melodic line sung or played by everyone in unison) to polyphony (multiple melodic lines—but still not harmony in the modern sense), and from literal stories (biblical, mostly) to romance, metaphor, and allegory. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he affected literature and music as you know it.

His name is probably derived from the town of Machault (note the L), less than 20 miles from Rheims, where he lived out the last few years of his life. At the time, it was Frankish land, but it had long been contested by Romans, Gallic insurrection, and fun folks such as the Vandals and Attila the Hun. Like others at the time, he was given a first name and then the town of origin was tacked on to identify which Guillaume was meant. Nowadays, we call him by his surname, Machaut.

He lived during a time of artistic, political, and religious secularization, and although he was a cleric, he spent his time in secular circles, producing poetry and music about equally. He was admired and imitated by other poets all over Europe, including Geoffrey Chaucer. His poetry is often compared favorably to that of Petrarch, according to French contemporaries.

He seems to have bounced around Europe for a while, becoming a priest and then in 1323, secretary to the King of Bohemia. In 1340, his principal residence was in Rheims, and by 1349, he served the King of Navarre. There was a lot of anti-Semitism and instigation of violence against the Jews in his work, including accusations of poisoning wells and causing the Black Plague that devastated France in 1349. Sadly, his attitude was all too common.

He had many royal connections, including the King of Cyprus and the court of Savoy. He followed his various military patrons wherever they wandered, including Silesia, Poland, Italy, Lithuania, and all over France. But it must have been a terrifying time. People all around him, including his patrons, were dying of the black death. He managed to survive to write about it.

He was a master of the Ars Nova and among the great composers of all time. Ars Nova is a musical style that flourished in the 14th century. Basically, it marks a change of direction from strictly sacred, modal music (see my earlier blog, Musical Modes, Part I: Church Modes, for more on this), to a more open attitude about scales and secular music. At this point, music began to move toward chords via polyphony and from church service-specific to occasion-specific.

In his lifetime, he was most famous for writing Roman de Fauvel, an allegorical “novel” (the literary form of a novel hadn’t yet been invented), an attack on the vices of the times using a biblical theme. The name of Fauvel the horse is an acronym from the letters that begin the words flattery, avarice, usury, villainy, envy, and lowness. The story goes that Fauvel was so successful as a horse that he aspired to marry Fortune. She’s annoyed by his attentions and sends a substitute, VainGlory, whom Fauvel unknowingly marries. Their children grow up to become a menace to all of France. The story was probably written as a commission for Philip IV because there are allegorical attacks on the Knights of Templar in it. The Templars were one of Philip IV’s pet enemies, largely because he couldn’t repay a debt to them.

Machaut was the master of the isorhythmic motet (meaning that there was a single rhythm throughout the piece), but deserted it for polyphony (multiple melodic lines and varied rhythms) once he’d heard it. He wasn’t really an innovator here, but he refined polyphonic music until it became the definitive musical form of his time.

He would have had both men and women singers in his (secular) choir, and when the minstrels tired of playing for dancers at parties, the singers took over. This would have been a departure from most parties at the time.

Machaut diligently documented all of the various forms of music that existed at the time, such as the viralai, the chanson, and the rondeaux, leaving a record to help music historians figure out when these forms were invented.

In addition, he wrote about 400 poems, most of which didn’t get set to music, and it seems that he wrote the words before he wrote the music when he did set them. Common themes were war, captivity, religion, and courtly love.

He wrote one Mass and two motets with liturgical connections. All the rest of his compositions were secular. There are 21 motets, nearly all of which were based on plainsong melodies or secular songs. There are nearly 120 works based on secular song forms, such as the lai, which is lengthy and mainly monophonic; the virelai, which is mostly monophonic, like the works of trouvères; and rondeaus and ballades, which are almost all polyphonic, in two or three parts, and very rarely four, and are often performed with one singer and accompanying instruments. Machaut was one of the last composers to write a lai, as the style was already out of fashion.

Six manuscripts contain all of Machaut’s works, and were collected and organized by Machaut himself. The originals are beautifully illustrated and belonged to important patrons, like dukes and counts and such.

His La Messe de Notre Dame Mass is the earliest known complete Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the Ite missa est movement that went away post-Tridentine Council, leaving the priest to say it privately after that). It’s possible that Machaut wrote other Masses that were less well documented, because parts appear in collections with other composers’ works, and only his own efforts to document his own work preserved the information that they were his. At any rate, the Notre Dame may have been intended for the Rheims cathedral, or perhaps as a votive Mass in Mary’s honor. It’s not all the same style—the Gloria and Credo are conductus-style and the others are isorhythmic tenors based on plainsong Mass chants.

He wrote a secular work called Dit de la harpe, where the 24 virtues of his lady love are equated with each of the 24 strings of the harp. (Modern harps have more strings than medieval harps.) He considered the harp the most perfect of all instruments and occasionally wrote harp and voice versions of the same music.

He occasionally used a style called hoqueting (or hocketing), where the singers sound like they have the hiccups, in order to create an interesting rhythmic and nearly percussive texture. In hoqueting, voices alternate in little chirps in rapid succession, like a kind of vocal leap frog. The style was found in sacred music in the 13th and 14th century, but never really caught on even then. Machaut wrote a piece called “David Hoquetus” for three voices, so he thought it was interesting, at least. In that piece, Machaut used a chant, sung in a regular rhythm by the lowest voice, and then let the upper two voices dance around it in hoquet.

When Machaut died in 1377, many composers wrote elegies lamenting his loss. Later, musicologists would cite Machaut as the pivotal composer who changed music from Medieval music into Renaissance. So even if you’ve never heard of him, the music you love best wouldn’t have been possible without him.


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

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

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000

“Music in the Medieval World,” by Albert Seay, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1965

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1943

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

Written by Melanie Spiller

January 27, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Instrument Biography: The Harp

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The harp is one of the oldest stringed instruments on the planet. It’s a close relative of the lyre and the psaltery, and is a plucked stringed instrument in the family of instruments called “chordophones” that includes lutes, lyres, and zithers.

The lyre is a U-shaped piece of wood with a cross bar to which the strings are attached from the base of the U. The harp is made with three pieces of wood that form a triangle, and strings of metal, gut, or twisted hair that go from the sounding board side (near the player) to the neck (at the top) where the tuning pegs are, and with the third side providing structural integrity. (There’s a LOT of tension from those strings.)

The lyre and harp are used similarly—the lyre has strings of a single length, and the harp uses multiple lengths and thicknesses of strings for tuning. The larger scale and tunability of the harp was much in demand by the Middle Ages. When I began my research on the harp, I’d intended to say that the Middle Ages were the harp’s zenith in popularity, but really, the harp started popular and stayed popular until the end of the 20th century.

Early harps had anywhere from six or seven to 25 strings. Metal strings were (and are) plucked with fingernails to give a harsh, brilliant tone, and gut strings make a softer sound and are played with the pads of the fingertips. By the late Middle Ages, there were two types of harp: a massive Irish harp with metal strings and a lighter Gothic harp with gut strings. But I get ahead of myself.

A Harp History

The harp is thought to have originated in Syria, and Francis W. Galpin (musicologist, early 20th centur) calls the harp the most characteristic of Sumerian musical instruments. There’s a restored specimen from around 2700 BCE in the British Museum that is thought to be the Sumerian harp of Ur (where the biblical Abraham came from). It has 11 strings. Other examples, in vestiges or images, have as many as 15 strings.

The oldest Sumerian harps were bow-shaped (like a bow and arrow’s bow) and strung cross-wise. The Assyrian harps were upright and strung vertically, like modern harps. Both lacked the fore-pillar, so they might be considered lyres, if you are particular about these things.

The harp appears in Egypt in the 15th century BCE. Apparently the subjugated kings of southwestern Asia sent tributes to Egyptian rulers that included dancing and singing girls and their various strange instruments. Egypt’s music underwent a significant change when these things were introduced to them and nearly all of their own ancient instruments were discarded. It wasn’t long before the standing harp became larger and gained strings; shrill oboes replaced the softer flutes; and new forms of lyres, the new lute, and small hand drums that came from Asia became the sound of Egyptian music. Marrying well with the Arabic sensibilities, Egyptian music became noisier and more stimulating as a result. (Think belly dance music.)

But the Egyptians weren’t the only ones borrowing. Everyone was learning from other cultures. The Egyptians borrowed musical technology from Mesopotamia and Syria as well as from Asia; the Jews borrowed from the Phoenicians; and the Greeks from Crete, Asia Minor, and Phoenicia. And once someone heard the new sounds, they had to try it too. It wasn’t long before the harp, lyre, double oboe, and hand drums were played in Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy—all around the Mediterranean Sea.

The bowed harp was popular in Egypt from around 1550 to 1080 BCE. With only three or four strings and a pointy bottom for support, these harps reached sizes of up to six feet tall.

Harps appear among Greece’s favorite instruments, but they preferred the lyre type, especially within the cult of Apollo. Archeologists have found a Babylonian vase that shows two harps, one with five strings, thought to ward off suffering, and the other with two, thought to be the more sacred of the two styles.

The second Temple of Jerusalem, built in the late 6th century BCE on the site of the original Temple of Solomon, was a place for public worship until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. In it, Jewish religious observances centered around the sacrifice of a lamb by the priests as assisted by Levites (members of the priestly class, including musicians), and witnessed by laypeople. Choirs of Levites sang the psalms assigned to the day, accompanied by harp and psaltery (see Instrument Biography: Psaltery, coming soon).

As the religion of Islam gained in popularity, harps were pushed out of Arabic music. The prophet Mohamed said that music had no place in secular culture, and he specifically banned instrumental music as a forbidden pleasure. He mentioned the lute, the harp, and the flute, and he also banned the drums as frivolous and morally loose. Sacred music was very specific in Islam and has remained nearly unaltered to our own time.

But Muslims weren’t the only ones to ban musical instruments. Eusebios (c260-c340 CE), who was a Catholic bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and author of “Ecclesiastical History” (the most important Catholic church history of ancient times), also disapproved of the use of ancient instruments of any kind, including the harp. He says that the body of living souls singing God’s praises made up a living psaltery and that more than the voices was an unseemly excess.

Clement of Alexandria (c150-c220 CE) was a little more lenient. He limited instruments for Christian worship to the harp and lyre because he worried about pagan influences with the others. (It must be noted here that it was women who were playing the drums. There is some misogyny involved with this sort of ruling.)

But the harp couldn’t be quieted. By the 8th century, harps appeared in Pictish stone sculptures in Scotland. These were the triangular (not bowed) style. In secular music, the harp spread all over Europe. It was played from the early to the late Middle Ages without much alteration. But that wasn’t true of the music itself, so by the late middle ages, the need for greater range meant greater number of strings.

The harp was much used in the Middle Ages as an expressive solo instrument and as accompaniment to monophonic (meaning no harmonies) singing. Its repertoire was improvised or memorized, partly because there was no notation yet (see the History of Music Notation), and partly because that was the taste of the time.

In France, the jongleurs (a sort of precursor to the troubadours) in the 11th century were expected to play an instrument—usually a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery or small organ.

By the 12th century, troubadours had taken the harp on as a primary instrument, and a little later, the trouvères used it too. Because music notation was in its infancy, we don’t have anything but the lyrics for most of this music, but experts guess that it sounded a lot like the better-documented church music, as it was a habit, then and now, for one to borrow from the other.

In France, 13th century trouvères used various sizes of harps, each diatonically tuned (do-re-me). Chromatic harps (like all the notes on the piano, black and white, played in succession from one end to the other, one at a time) didn’t come into use until the end of the 16th century.

In the 14thto the 16th centuries, instruments were chosen for their ability to be loud. This distinction was called haut (French for “high”) and bas (French for “low”) for their volume, not their pitches. The most common low instruments were harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, transverse flutes, and recorders. Among the high instruments were shawms, cornets, and trumpets. Percussion instruments, including kettle drums, small bells, and cymbals, were common in ensembles of all kinds.

During the Renaissance, the harp was pushed aside by the fully chromatic lute, but a chromatic harp, with two rows of strings, was developed in the 16th century and revived it a bit. By 1600, the triple harp had been invented, with three rows of strings and 4 1/2 octaves. It became a useful continuo (a specific kind of accompaniment) instrument in the early Baroque.

By the Baroque, harps were taller, wider, and typically chromatic, having a separate string for each of the 12 notes in a chromatic scale. Even more successful than the chromatic harp was the Hakenharfe, or hooked harp, invented in the Tyrol in the late 17th century. The Hakenharfe was tuned diatonically (do-re-me) and had hooks on the neck (the top portion). The player pressed the string against the hook, causing the note to sharpen (be slightly higher in pitch, like the difference between a white note on the piano and its neighboring black note). This was the forerunner of today’s sharping levers. (There’s more about sharping levers in the structure section.) There’s a similar instrument to the Hakenharfe still in use for folk music in the Czech Republic.

The pedal harp was invented in Germany around 1720. All of the most commonly sharpable strings were attached to a single mechanism that could be actuated by the player’s feet. The older system of levers and hooks necessitated taking one hand away from playing the strings to press a string against the hook, so using the feet allowed more intricate tunes with both hands available throughout. There were seven pedals, all of which could be fixed in a depressed position, facilitating a modern key signature. (Older music had a somewhat more fluid attitude about sharps and flats. Modern key signatures insist that every time you play a certain note in any octave, it will always be treated the same way.)

It is the Baroque sensibility that most influenced the look of modern harps, with their classical-looking columns for the pillar. It was then that harps began to appear with the filigree and other excesses of the German Baroque.

The 17th and 18th centuries brought other changes to the harp, like a pointed harp in England, an arpetto in Italy, and a Spitzharfe in Germany. The latter is shaped like a wing and has a soundbox between two ranks of strings—the high notes on one side of the soundbox and the low notes on the other. These were played by resting the instrument on a table or a lap, plucking the melody on the high side and the accompaniment on the other.

The Classical harp was louder and capable of more virtuosic playing than the Baroque, and this is when the finesse of the new pedal harp really came into its own.

Harps continue to be popular in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Asia. New schools of playing include French, Russian, Viennese, Attl, St. Petersburg, and others. Most of these have to do with differences in how the arms are held and how the thumb moves.

Harp Structure

By definition, the harp has all its strings on a single plane, perpendicular to the sounding board. (A lyre has them all on the same plane.)

The European harp includes the three parts of an equilateral triangle. One side of the triangle is the sounding board, held against the body, with the strings attached. The top side of the triangle (the pointy end of the triangle is as the bottom—a harp needs a stand or some sort of foot to stay upright) is called the neck, and is where the strings attach at the other end. Tuning pegs are lined up on the neck, and sometimes, it’s curved downward or angled. (Mine has a pretty swoop to it.) The third side of the triangle is called the pillar. It provides strength and contributes to the resonance. Sometimes, the pillars have a slight outward curve, which makes it easier to reach the lower strings without interference.

The double-action pedal harp (invented by Sebastien Erard in the late 18th century) has two pegged disks on the neck below the tuning pegs that put a kink in the strings. If the pedal is depressed halfway, the string is sharped by a half-step (from a white key to its neighboring black key on the piano) and if the pedal is fully depressed, the string is sharped by a whole step (from one white to the next when there is an intervening black key on the piano). All strings that sound that particular note through all of the octaves are affected the same way. The pedals can be fixed to put the instrument into a particular key or they can be temporarily fixed by treading on the pedal. This invention made the harp suitable for symphonic and opera orchestras. (Erard also received patents for improvements to the piano, which was his primary interest.)

The ability to play arpeggios (small step-wise leaps across several notes upward or downward) and chords (multiple notes played all at once) were not the only reasons that musicians found the harp appealing. The overtones and harmonics created by the vibrations to neighboring strings add a certain inviting charm. Because the body of the sounding board is hollow, when the string is plucked, both the string and the sounding board resonate. As the sounding board responds, nearby strings are affected and produce a slight hum, creating harmonics and overtones that are so appealing. It’s considered to sound particularly nice with wind instruments such as flutes, trumpets, and so forth.

A fellow called G.C. Pfranger invented a chromatic harp in the 19th century which was improved by Jean Henri Pape in 1843. Pape made the strings correspond to the white and black keys of a piano by having the “white” notes on one plane and the “black” notes on another, at slight angles. The two sets cross each other about half-way down. (This is the scheme for what are called double-strung harps.) Further improvements came in the United States by a fellow called Gustave Lyon.

Modern harps are strung with wire, nylon, gut, or silk. On a small harp, the core material is the same for all lengths and thicknesses. On larger harps, string materials are mixed to attain a greater range of notes. European-style harps have C strings tinted red and F strings tinted blue or black, which is a great aid in locating specific notes in a sea of strings. Wire strings are either silver or bronze for the same reason.

Tuning pins are usually metal. The bottom end of the string is threaded through a hole in the sounding board and tied in a knot. The upper ends of the strings are threaded through a tuning pin. Like other stringed instruments, a tuning pin winds the string as it’s turned and can be adjusted to make the notes higher or lower, as needed.

Lever harps have a small lever joint near the tuning pins that sharps individual strings when it’s flipped. The harpist must take one hand off the strings to make adjustments during performances for accidentals (sharps outside those specified in the key signature) and key changes.

Some harps (like mine) have neither pedals nor sharping levers and must be played in a single key signature throughout the performance.

In Medieval and Renaissance harps, some strings had a braying pin attached to the tuning pin, which buzzed when the string was plucked. This fashion was no longer the style by the Baroque period and is seldom seen today, even in period music ensembles.

The instrument rests between the knees or on the lap of the harpist, and against their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp and early Scottish or Irish harps are played against the left shoulder. Only the first four fingers of each hand are used. The pinky finger is considered too short, and using it distorts the shape of the hand, according to most schools of harp instruction.

Dynamics (loudness and softness) are controlled by how hard the strings are plucked. A fuller sound can be produced by plucking near the center of the string, and a more twangy, guitar-like sound by plucking near the bottom of the string. Tone is also affected by the skin on the harpist’s hands, by whether it’s oily or dry, and by the thickness of callouses.

Concert pedal harps have 47 strings (6 ½ octaves). They weigh about 80 pounds and are about 6 feet tall. The rods that effect the sharping in a pedal harp are hidden in the pillar.

The Name

The ancient instrument was also called the pectis or magadis. The latter had 20 strings, making it possible to play in octaves. The Egyptians used the Sumerian word for “bow” to name the harp although it is often called the cithara, especially in medieval documents.

The English word harp comes to us from the Old English hearpe. The German word is harfe and the Dutch word is harp.

Nations of Harps

Ireland, especially the Celts, really took to the harp. There are images dating from as early as the 9th century, including some on an elegant a reliquary and on a Carolingian manuscript. The harps in both images are based on Syrian models that are bow-shaped and have fewer than a dozen strings. Celtic harps were part of the bard tradition, which involved singing epic tales at banquets and other occasions. Fiddles were also popular among the Celts, and remain so today.

The English poem “Beowulf” has the word hearpe in it, dating from the 8th century, although they might have meant nearly any plucked instrument (like a psaltery or a lyre). But the harp was definitely in England by the 10th century. Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the Welsh and the Scottish played the harp and psaltery, and also mentions the rote (like a psaltery and sometimes called the rotta—see Instrument Biography: Psaltery, coming soon). Chaucer’s friar enjoyed singing with a harp in “Canterbury Tales” in the 14th century, and his pardoner character speaks of harps as the instruments of the devil. (Pardoners were those clerics who accepted money and other tokens in exchange for forgiveness for crimes and sins, or for relics, most of which had questionable provenance.)

German manuscripts of the 12th and 13th century include the expression cithara angelico, meaning harp of the angels. In the 14th century, Dante refers to the harps in Ireland, and Michael Praetorius (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius, coming soon) in Germany mentions the Irish harp in the 17th century

In France, harps are depicted with vièles, mostly as used by troubadours. The trouvères also used them, especially as music changed from being performed by aristocrats to being performed by the bourgeois. (Troubadours, trouvères, minnesingers, and minstrels are all forms of traveling musicians that were in vogue in the Middle Ages.)


There are several less-than-traditional forms of harps. The Aeolian harp is a box with a bunch of varied-width strings all tuned to the same note. Each string, because of the differences in girth, has a different timbre. The box is placed so that the wind makes the strings sound, and the overtones become the sort of essential fairy-like sounds that we associate with the Romantic period. The Aeolian harp is probably as old as biblical times, as King David’s harp (from the Old Testament) was heard to be played by the midnight wind. St. Dunstan (d.988) was thought to have magic powers because he placed such a harp in a draft and it played all by itself. Father Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) built a modern-style Aeolian harp, and Alexander Pope introduced an Aeolian harp to England in the early 1700s. You can still buy Aeolian harps in specialty music stores today.

Latin Americans liked the Baroque harps brought from Spain and they were widely adopted in Mexico, the Andes, Venezuela, and Paraguay.

African harps tend to be without a pillar and are often bowed. Chinese harps are somewhat rare today, and mostly take the form of zithers. The Kafir harp in Afghanistan may predate European harps and is still played today.

Famous Harp Players

Aristocratic women were often trained to play the harp as an “accomplishment” in Europe from Baroque times until the Victorian era, but it was also considered an instrument for professionals. The most famous include Nicholas Bochsa (harpist to Napoleon I), Elias Parish-Alvars, and Albert Zabel. Although part of a rather comical family, Harpo Marx was a fine harpist in the 20th century.

Current experts include Andrew Lawrence-King, Cheryl Ann Fulton, Sylvia Woods, Andreas Vollenweider, and more.

Jazz harpists include Casper Reardon, Dorothy Ashby, and Alice Coltrane. These names should also appear among the composers below.

Famous Harp Composers

There are relatively few composers who devote themselves to the harp, but Turlough O’Carolan (see Composer Biography: Turlough O’Carolan). Those with less of a focus, but who also admired the harp include Georges Cousineau, who, by 1782, transformed the instrument from a simple pedal harp to a double pedal harp. Piano-maker Sebastian Erard (mentioned above) solved the pedal problem by the 1810s, making a harp with 6 ½ octaves.

Handel, J. C. Bach, Mozart, Albrechtsberger, Schenck, Dussek, and Spohr were Baroque composers who used the harp. Then came Wagner, Louis Spode, Mozart, Delibes, Gounod, and Massenet in later periods. You can’t ignore the others either, such as Berlioz, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Puccini, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss.

Occasionally you’ll find a harp used in popular music, such as The Beatles 1967 album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Cher’s “Dark Lady, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” and Heatwave’s “Boogie nights.” Most often, Gayle Levant, a Los Angeles studio harpist played on these recordings.

Go ahead. Look on your shelves. You probably already own something with a harp on the CD. And if you go to Ireland, you’ll see it everywhere—on the money, on labels, in statues.


  • “Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint).
  • “Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978.
  • “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
  • “A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010
  • “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943
  • “A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabether Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

Written by Melanie Spiller

January 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm

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

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Guillaume Dufay is another of those Franco-Flemish composers you might not have heard of but on whose music the stuff you really like is based. He lived from somewhere 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 chapels at court. 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 and 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 were 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 in 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 in a conflict.

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 there, 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. 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 for 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. The Golden Fleece 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 that are missing), 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 preference.

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 him.

Dufay’s chansons blend national styles, tossing French characteristics into music composed for Italian patrons, and so forth. French characteristics include long melismas, frequent syncopations, and some free dissonances. 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 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 Dufay’s 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 in 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.

You can find more blogs like this one on my website:



“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

January 12, 2013 at 3:06 pm