John Dunstable

John Dunstable (ca. 1390-1453) was the most celebrated English composer of the entire 15th century. His works were known and imitated all over western Europe.

Contemporary documentation of John Dunstable's life is sparse. From his tombstone, which was in St. Stephen Walbrook, London, until it was destroyed in the Great Fire, it is known that he died on Dec. 24, 1453, and that he was also a mathematician and astronomer. Several tracts on astronomy once in his possession are in various English libraries, and from one of these it is known that he was in the service of John, Duke of Bedford, brother of Henry V. John became regent of France in 1422 and maintained a chapel in that country until his death in 1435; thus it is likely that Dunstable was on the Continent for some years. He is mentioned by several contemporary and slightly later theorists. Other information must be deduced from his music and the manuscript sources that preserve it.

Almost all of Dunstable's known works are sacred. There are 20-odd settings of items of the Mass Ordinary (single sections, Gloria-Credo or Sanctus-Agnus pairs, and complete cyclic Masses), 12 is orhythmic motets, some 20 motets and polyphonic settings of liturgical melodies, and 2 secular pieces.

Most of Dunstable's compositions are found in non-insular sources. Almost all of his motets are in a manuscript in Modena (probably copied in Ferrara); some of these motets and most of his Mass music are in sources in Trent and Aosta. Other works are in Bologna, Florence, Berlin, El Escorial, Paris, and Seville. Only a handful of English sources of his music have survived, and many of these are fragmentary. The destruction of musical manuscripts (and instruments) for religious and political reasons at a later time created a situation whereby no major sources of polyphonic music remain in England for roughly the middle years of the 15th century. It is fortunate that English music was so widely admired and copied on the Continent.

Lack of biographical information and precise datings for manuscripts makes a chronology of Dunstable's works very difficult. In a general way, the is orhythmic motets, with their rigidly structured formal frameworks and general harmonic style, look back to techniques popular in the 14th century, and such harmonizations of liturgical melodies as the Magnificat secundi toni and Ave Regina celorum are clear descendants of late-14th century English descant settings. On the other hand, the Missa Rex seculorum and Missa Da gaudierum premia, cyclic Masses with each section built over a common tenor, are innovative works, early examples of a species of composition that was to be a cornerstone of Mass composition for the next century, and some of the nonisorhythmic—and probably later—motets, such as Quam pulchra es and Salve Regina mater mire, anticipate the motet style of the generation of Josquin des Prez with their careful declamatory settings of the text, fuller harmonic style, and independence of the individual voices.

Stylistic features of English music were known to and imitated by such Continental masters as Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois. This can be seen in their music, in the incorporation of a harmonic style more dependent on thirds and sixths and their taking up of such structural devices as the tenor, or cantus firmus, Mass. It is also attested to by writers of the time. Martin le Franc, in his lengthy poem Le Champion des dames (1441-1442), speaks of Dufay and Binchois as having found a new way in music, based on the English style of Dunstable. And Johannes Tinctoris in his Proportionales musices (ca. 1476) maintains that a fundamental change took place in music in the early 15th century, that it originated with Dunstable, and that not only Dufay and Binchois but also such men as Johannes Ockeghem, Anthoine Busnois, and their contemporaries were affected by this new style.

This statement may be exaggerated. The English influence came not only from Dunstable but also from his contemporaries, particularly Leonel Power. But a good case can be made for the suggestion that the diffusion, popularity, and influence of English music were never so great as during the first half of the 15th century, and Dunstable stands at the head of this school.

Further Reading on John Dunstable

Stylistic and biographical commentary on Dunstable are in the following standard works: Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (1940); Manfred F. Bukofzer, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (1950); Frank Llewellyn Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain (1958); and Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Bent, Margaret, Dunstable, London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.