Guillaume Dufay

The works of the Netherlandish composer Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400-1474) marked the beginning of the Renaissance and influenced the course of music during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Born probably in the province of Hainaut in what is now Belgium, Guillaume Dufay received his musical training at the cathedral school of Cambrai under Nicholas Malin and Richard Loqueville (1409-ca. 1419). One of Loqueville's three-voice works is preserved in a four-voice arrangement by Dufay. Cambrai was famous for its cathedral school and for its bishop, Pierre d'Ailly, one of the more influential figures in the Church at this time, who was also chancellor of the University of Paris. Dufay may have been in his retinue during the bishop's stay at the Council of Constance (1414-1418).

This gathering of churchmen from all over Europe may have been the occasion of Dufay's introduction to his first Italian patrons, the Malatesta family. He was in Rimini at the court of the Malatestas in 1419/1420; the works he wrote for members of the family date from this time until 1426.

Between 1426 and 1428 Dufay was in Cambrai. A chanson, Adieu ces bon vins de Lannoys, dated 1426 in a contemporary manuscript, may indicate a stay in Laon, a city in which he would hold two benefices in 1430. In 1428 he went to Italy to become a member of the papal chapel, where he remained until 1433. After 2 years in Savoy and Cambrai, Dufay returned to serve in the papal chapel until 1437. During this period his name moves from ninth to first position in the lists of singers.

In his remaining years Dufay's activities can be traced only with difficulty. He is known to have spent much of this time in Cambrai, especially after 1445. According to his will, he also spent at least 5 more years at the court of Savoy. The duchy of Savoy under Louis and his wife, Anne of Cyprus, boasted one of the best chapels in Europe. It appears that during Dufay's later stay in Savoy he received a degree in law from the University of Turin. An incomplete motet, Juvenis qui puellam, jokingly portrays the disputation required of a degree candidate.

Dufay became a canon at St. Waltrudis in Mons in 1446, having also received a canonicate in Cambrai in 1436. At St. Waltrudis he met the composer Gilles Binchois, who was a canon there. Dufay also had some connection with the Burgundian court in this period since he is named as a member of the chapel of the Duke of Burgundy in a document that is not, however, from that court. The title may have been an honorary one since Dufay's presence there cannot be documented.

The last 30 years of Dufay's life were centered on the Cathedral at Cambrai. Archival documents from the Cathedral contain references to the copying of his music and, on at least one occasion, to the payment to him of 60 écus for having enriched the services with his music. His fame was widespread; for example, in 1458 he was invited to Besançon to arbitrate a dispute over the mode of an antiphon, and later Piero de' Medici referred to Dufay as the ornament of his age. He died in Cambrai on Nov. 27, 1474.

Dufay's will, which is preserved, indicates that he achieved considerable material success in life. He made bequests of artworks, music books, and money to various individuals and institutions, including the bequest of four music books to Charles the Bold of Burgundy. He also requested the performance of some of his own music in his last hour and for his last rites. The motet he specified, Ave Regina caelorum, is preserved and has, in addition to the traditional text, a plea for "mercy on thy dying Dufay," indicating that he probably composed it for this purpose. The Requiem Mass he asked to have performed is the earliest polyphonic setting of this service; it has not been preserved.

Dufay achieved a synthesis of the different national styles of the early 15th century. His earliest works are naturally French in nature, but those written in the 1420s show the strong impression the flowing vocal lines of Italian music made on the young composer. This is especially true in his setting of Petrarch's Vergine bella. The works of the late 1420s and 1430s give evidence of possible contact with English music and its "sweet sound" of thirds, sixths, and full triads. This mature style is the beginning of the international style of the Renaissance, and it is the music that the theorist Johannes Tinctoris (ca. 1476) calls the "new art … whose fount and origin is held to be among the English, of whom Dunstable stood forth as chief. Contemporary with him in France were Dufay and Binchois, to whom directly succeeded the moderns Ockeghem, Busnois, Regis and Caron." The poet Martin le Franc in his Le Champion des dames (1441-1442) writes that Dufay "has taken the English countenance and follows Dunstable."

More than 200 compositions by Dufay have been preserved. These include all genres common at the time: Mass Ordinaries, both individual movements and cycles, Mass Propers, motets, and minor liturgical works, as well as French chansons and settings of Italian texts. He used the older isorhythmic technique, but only for festival motets where this older technique would carry a certain connotation suitable to the occasion. He was among the earliest Continental composers to compose cyclic Mass Ordinaries and one of the first to use a secular cantus firmus (in the Mass Se la face ay pale). He also composed a cycle of hymns for the Church year. In these works one finds the "sweet sound" of thirds, sixths, and full triads and classic examples of fauxbourdon. His chansons, datable in all periods of his creative life, show the changes in style taking place in the 15th century; changes in conception of melody, harmony, and metric flow gradually occur from the earliest to the latest of these works. His style, a fusion of features of French, Italian, and English music of the 1420s, becomes the starting point for composers whose line extends into the 16th century.

Further Reading on Guillaume Dufay

A good treatment of Dufay's life and work and his position in history is in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959).

Additional Biography Sources

Fallows, David, Dufay, New York: Vintage Books, 1988, 1982.