Sunday, January 29, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Guillaume Dufay

Portrait by Jan van Eyck, possibly of Dufay
Almost exactly a hundred years after Machaut, the leading composer was Guillaume Dufay. He was born around 1397 and died in 1474, the leading figure in the Burgundian School. He grew up in Cambrai and later was employed by the Malatesta family and two popes, where he sang in the papal choir. Nowadays nearly all composers are pianists (with the occasional guitarist...), but in this period they tended to be singers and their compositions are inherently vocal as a result. Dufay is the central figure in the transition from Medieval music to the Renaissance. As Wikipedia notes, "Dufay was one of the last composers to make use of medieval techniques such as isorhythm but one of the first to use the harmonies, phrasing and expressive melodies characteristic of the early Renaissance." Here is their article on Dufay.

Looking back in music history, one thing that comes to light is that, as we move from antiquity closer and closer to our time the musicians and their music become more individual. While Machaut's texts were in the traditions of courtly love, Dufay strikes a personal note and for the first time we seem to hear the voice of a single human being. In this song, for example, he laments leaving the things he loved in Lannoys:

Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys

Rondeau by Guillaume Dufay (1426)

 Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys,
Farewell to the fine wines of the Laonnais,
 Adieu dames, adieu borgois
farewell ladies, farewell townsmen,
 Adieu celle que tant amoye
farewell to her I loved so much,
 Adieu toute playssante joye,
farewell to all joy and pleasure,
 Adieu tous compaignons galois.
farewell all boon companions.

Here are the Ensemble Unicorn performing the song. In their arrangement, the song is heard first on the lute, played freely, then with several instruments and finally with the voice.

Dufay wrote this as a young man, probably in response to the fact that then, as now, young ambitious musicians often had to travel far from home to further their careers. A modern analogue might be "Strawberry Fields Forever" by John Lennon:

In 1436, Dufay wrote a spectacular isorhythmic motet, Nuper Rosarum Flores, the culmination of this method of composition, for the consecration of the cathedral in Florence with its Duomo by Brunelleschi. Here is the Wikipedia article on the piece. And here is a performance:

You could write a whole book on that piece! Quite a few articles have been written about whether or not the proportions of the piece relate to the proportions of the cathedral or to the biblical passage Kings 6:1–20, which gives the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon. No real modern analogues to this one. Maybe the Dona nobis pacem from Bach's B minor mass. Or perhaps the Third Symphony of Gorecki:

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