The Hilliard Ensemble
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When Pope Eugenius IV presided at the dedication of Florence Cathedral on the Feast of Our Lady in 1436. many historical strands came together. The main body of the cathedral had stood for well over a century; but it had only recently received the magnificent cupola which is to this day Florence's most famous landmark and symbol. This was the engineering masterpiece of Filippo Brunelleschi, a man whose name is central to the notion of the Renaissance. And if its original design harks back to Byzantium, the specific structural model was a classical building in Rome, the Pantheon. The significance of this was not lost on contemporaries, and that is only one of many reasons why Florence in 1436 can be seen as the very crucible of the Renaissance.
Dufay's music for the occasion similarly gave new life to an earlier technique, the isorhythmic motet. He built his Nuper rosarum flores on two lower voices that are performed four times at different speeds with the proportional lengths 6:4:2:3- which correspond to the proportions of the nave, the crossing, the apse and the height of the cupola in the cathedral. That these two voices use the same melody - the Introit for the dedication of a church - at two different pitch levels and with interlocking rhythms itself symbolises the essence of Brunelleschi's structural feat, an inner shell and an outer shell with interlocking Struts.
But just as we value Brunelleschi's cupola mainly for its external beauty and elegance, so Dufay's motet makes its main musical impact with the lines of the upper voices. Mere each of the four sections is audibly constructed with the same melodic outline, decorated differently each time it appears. And the lines are those of a new generation, flowing and free with an astonishingly clear sense of where they are going and how.
We can hear the difference in another motet composed only five years earlier for the same patron. Ecclesiae militantis, for Eugenius IV's consecration as pope on 11 March 1431, is one of the richest and most intricate works in Dufay's output. Exceptionally for its time, it is in five voices, each with its own text. The two lowest voices are very simple and in long notes; they use snatches of Gregorian chant associated with the Archangel Gabriel, in acknowledgment of the Pope's baptismal name, Gabriele Condulmer. In the middle is a simple tune performed six times at different speeds. On top are two voices in the same range; their texts contrast in metre and design, but their melodic lines intertwine and exchange material. Their three main sections all have the same melodic outline, as in Nuper rosarum flores, though it may take considerably more careful listening to perceive their similarity in this much subtler case. Yet to find Ecclesiae militantis the most exciting of all Dufay's early works is not to deny that the structural aims in the more famous Nuper rosoruw flores are entirely different and clearer.
Those are the only works in this recording for which firm dates are known. But in general Dufay's life and works are well documented. He was born around 1400, probably at Cambrai in north-eastern France. After being a choirboy there in one of Europe's richest and most famous choirs, he made his way to Italy where he was receiving prestigious commissions as early as 1419. The wonderful motet O sancte Sebastiane dates from the 1420s and shows his early decorative style, comparable with the 'International Gothic' in the visual arts. From 1428 to 1437 he was mostly in the papal choir; and by 1439, when he returned to Cambrai, he had composed a large proportion of the 200-odd works that now survive from his pen. The three voice compline antiphon Alma redemptoris mater must be late in those years; the effortless way in which Dufay turns the chant melody into an elegant and flowing top line for his polyphony is very much of a piece with his main output after about 1435, for at that stage - already unchallenged as the leading composer of his day - he began to rebuild his technique, developing a simpler melodic style with more attention to large-scale formal direction. Like so many other composers before and since, he turned to Gregorian chant in his search for a new purity of style. But it is more difficult to date Salve flos Tuscae gentis. On the face of it this motet to the people of Florence should date from his time there, June 1435 to May 1437. Yet, as this recording should show, the motet's style is very different from that of Nuper rosarum flores and Alma redernptoris mater. Its softer lines, mellower and more subtly varied textures suggest a later date despite, its strict isorhythmic patterns with the proportions 6:3:4:2. Dufay prudently remained in contact with the Medici family and their organist Squarcialupi after he had left Florence; I would suggest that the motet was sent to Florence at a considerably later date.
Dufay's return to Cambrai in 1439 was largely the result of political circumstances; and he remained there during the 1440s. But as soon as the trouble blew over he was back in northern Italy, now an immensely distinguished figure with a newly reforged musical technique. And his arrival at the court of Savoy in the early 1450s seems a significant event in the history of music, for the new style he brought with him opened paths well into the next century. He apparently composed rather fewer works in the last twenty-five years of his life. Those that can be identified with certainty fall into two main categories: a fair number of chansons: and what is now considered the peak of his achievement, the four great cantus-firmus Mass cycles.
Of these, the Mass Se la face ay pale is almost certainly the earliest, composed for the court of Savoy in the mid-1450s. The Mass Ave regina celorum is the latest and by far the richest, composed for the dedication of Cambrai Cathedral in 1472; and the shortest, the astonishingly pure Mass Ecce ancilla domini, was copied at Cambrai in 1463 apparently as a new work. For the longest and most ambitious cycle. L'homme arme, it is extremely difficult to assign a date, and estimates have ranged from 1454 to 1470.
But its musical context is easier to see. The monophonic song L'homme arme formed the basis of at least twenty five Mass cycles in the second half of the fifteenth century. No other melody had such a career in the history of the polyphonic Mass. Dufay's could be the earliest, though Ockeghem or Busnoys may well have preceded him. But recent research suggests that the song's early history was connected with Charles the Bold. Duke of Burgundy from 1467 until his death at battle in 1477 after a career of inveterate warmongering and magnificently well-informed musical patronage. A large proportion of the early settings can be associated with the court of Burgundy or the Hapsburg court that inherited its mantle, and it is beyond question that the many early settings have some direct causal relationship to one another. It is therefore likely that Dufay's Mass was composed quite late in his life as homage to the duke with whom he seems to have been on cordial terms. For the listener one important point might be made about the distribution of voices in these works. Most polyphony of the years ca. 1300-1450 is composed with voices in two ranges about a fifth apart. (The actual sounding pitch is still a matter of contention.) In O sancte Sebastiane and Eccleslae militantis there are two equally important lines in the higher range, with the remainder in the lower range, as is characteristic of all Dufay's four-voice music up to the early 1430s. We hear the. next stage in Nuper rosarum and Salve flos where there is only one line in the higher register but three in the low range. After 1450, however, a new layout becomes common; in the Mass L'homme arme there is one voice in the highest range, two in the lower, and one more in a range a fifth below that. This new bass line is obviously important to the subsequent development of the polyphonic style. It is one of the reasons why the Mass sounds so different from the earlier works in this recording. But at the same time it shares several features with the motets. The structural basis is still a voice in the middle of the texture using borrowed material: this voice is normally in longer notes but repeated more quickly to create increased excitement towards the end of a movement; and the Mass, like the motets, was almost certainly composed to celebrate a particular occasion. There are also several levels on which both the motets and the Mass can be enjoyed. The richness of the invention and the variety of texture that come across at first hearing; the formal control and expressive detail that perhaps communicate more slowly to twentieth-century ears; and the extraordinarily detailed range of cross references and structural delights that repay the closest study and help to explain why such 'occasional' works were so often recopied in their own time.