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Rather more than 500 years ago, on 27 November 1474, there died in Cambrai Guillaume Dufay, the first great master of the so-called Netherlands school of composers, and one of the greatest masters of western music. From about the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 15th, France had been the leading country for music. In the fifteenth century, the French school was replaced by the Netherlands (or Burgundian / Netherlands) school. Following a nineteenth-century custom, 'Netherlands', here describes the inhabitants of a cultural landscape which takes in not only what is known today as Holland, but also Belgium and parts of north-east France. Until the end of the 16th century, the Netherlands school occupied the leading position in European music. This went so far that in Europe's most important musical centres singers and instrumentalists of Franco-Flemish origin were preferred. Even Italy, later to be for centuries the cradle and exporter of celebrated singers, recruited foreign singers during this period of the Netherlands school's predominance.
Guillaume Dufay's life is relatively well documented. He was born around 1400 in the Flemish / Wallonia border region. From 1409-1414 he was a choirboy at Cambrai cathedral. The years between 1420 and 1445 he spent mainly in Italy, initially almost certainly in the service of the Malatesta family in Pesaro and Rimini (c. 1420-1423). He then seems to have spent some time in the Laon area, but by 1428 is a singer in the papal chapel in Rome. He remained in this post until 1433. In 1435 he returned to the papal chapel, which in those troubled times had moved first to Florence, later to Bologna. From 1445 onwards, Dufay remained for the most part in Cambrai, where he was a canon and a much admired 'Prince of Music' sought out by musicians and other notables (like, for example, Charles the Bold). His links with the Burgundian court were especially close, to the extent that in 1446 he was entrusted with a diplomatic mission. Charles of Burgundy was for years his pupil. On Sunday 27 November 1474, Dufay died after a six or seven week illness, during which he was visited twice daily by Jean le Duc 'surgeon and barber'. His will includes the request that on his deathbed his motet Ave regina coelorum should be sung to him. From the text of this work we can discover the correct pronunciation of the three syllables of his surname ("Miserere supplicanti Dufay") the composer's name is set to three notes: DU-FA-Y.
In his works, Dufay combines in masterly fashion English influences with Franco-Flemish and Italian tendencies. From English music he takes a fondness for a harmonic style derived from popular music and the technique of adding colour to the cantus firmus, from France a rational approach to polyphonic construction and rhythmic structure, from Flanders a wealth of inner feeling and mysticism. In renaissance Italy Dufay had learned how to imbue all these qualities with the classical spirit. Melodic flow and overall construaion were clearer, simpler. Architecture was no longer an end in itself. The graceful fluency of the Italian style smoothes the lines, makes it all more supple, more singable, more hedonistic.
The four-part Gaude virgo, mater Christi is intended for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin (14 August). The three couplets of the sequence correspond to the musical construction. Parts 1 and 3 end on the fifth G - D, Part 2 on the fifth D - A. The third voice, the tenor, carries a predominantly calm, song-like melody. The first and second voices, Cantus I and II, are livelier. The subsidiary voice, the countertenor, is used basically to fill in, completing the harmony or providing a base.
The Magnificat 8 toni, for three voices, repeats four times, with a variant at the beginning, the same three-part musical structure. The first part is a faux-bourdon for three voices (Faux-bourdon movements may well have developed from performance techniques based on improvisation. Except for the beginnings and endings, the voices are for the most part arranged in parallel chords of a sixth.), the second part is throughout in free style for two-voices, the third in free style for three voices, with occasional reminiscences of faux-bourdon. The upper voice in all sections continually paraphrases the prescribed liturgical Magnificat formula.
The three-part Laetabundus exsultet fidelis chorus, written on a sequence text celebrating the birth of Christ, consists of six movements set in pairs. A single-voiced Gregorian chorale verse is followed each time by a setting for a group of voices, which paraphrases the chorale melody of Voice 1.
The marvellous Flos florum is a so-called Cantilena-Motet. Its tone is set by the upper voice. The Italian cantabile of the leading voice is supported by quieter countertenor and tenor. Towards the end all the voices come together in a gripping fermata movement.
The three-part Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum, is laid out strophically. Verses 1, 3 and 5 are sung as a chorale for a single voice, 2, 4 and 6 as a three-part faux-bourdon, with the chorale melody worked into the first voice. The hymn was probably written between 1428 and 1433, when Dufay was a member of the papal choir in Rome.
Fulgens iubar/Puerpera pura/Virgo post partum must have been written between 1440-1450 in Rome or Dijon. We have here to do with so-called isorhythmic motets. Dufay was the last important representative of this typically mediaeval style. The secret of the revelation that one dwelling in obscurity should be the centre of the world is here fully realized in music whose complexity has echoes of masonic ritual. Whole sections for several voices are repeated rhythmically, but varied melodically. The piece falls into 6 sections: Al, A2, Bl, B2, Cl and C2. The two upper voices repeat in sections A2, B2 and C2 the respective rhythmic patterns of Al, Bl and Cl, but with differently pitched notes. In accordance with the traditions of the mediaeval motet, the two upper voices sing different texts simultaneously. The simultaneous appearance of difference is a reminder that in essence our laws of time and place are merely relative. Tenor 1 (with the quotation of a Gregorian melody) and Tenor 2 perform the same rhythmic and melodic material six times, although with thrice-shortened values in A, B and C. Moreover, the initial letters of the texts for Tenor 2 form a acrostic: PETRUS DE CASTELLO CANTA! Whether this is the name of the author of the text, or one of Dufay's fellow singers, is so far unknown.
The three-part hymn, Ave maris stella, has the liturgical version for a single voice in verses 1, 3, 5 and 7; in verses 2, 4 and 6 a three-part faux-bourdon.
The Gloria-Credo pairing must date from a very early period, perhaps 1420-1440, when the complete setting of the Mass was not yet usual. The two lively upper voices are set above a sometimes quieter countertenor/tenor foundation. Important passages of the text are effectively thrown into relief by means of fermata in all four voices. Each of the closing Amen sections is enriched with textual inserts not taken from the ordinary of the Mass. The tunes used for these are taken from French and Italian folk-songs, whose distinctly worldly texts are given below:
"Tu m'as monte su la pance et riens n'a fait,
Otre te reface dieu que ce m'a fait."
"You kicked me in the stomach, and nothing happened,
May God reward you for what I felt then." (Gloria)
"La vilanella non e bella
Se non la dominica."
"Only on Sundays
The farmer girl is beautiful"
Once again, a simultaneity of differences, almost like a coincidentia oppositorum in the all-pervading sanctity!
The pieces from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch represent contemporary instrumental arrangements of Dufay's songs, with hideously deformed titles. Since the organ was permitted at the time to alternate with liturgical texts, we have made use of this practice in the realisation of some pieces. (Magnificat, etc.)
- Prof. Dr. Rene Clemencic (translation: Mike Yarrow)