John Dunstable

From New World Encyclopedia

John Dunstaple or Dunstable (c. 1390 – December 24, 1453) was an English composer of polyphonic music of the late Medieval and early Renaissance eras. He was one of the most famous composers active in the early fifteenth century, a near-contemporary of Leonell Power, and was widely influential, not only in England but on the continent, especially in the developing style of the Burgundian School. John Dunstable was a key in the stylism of the Burgundian School because he advocated the universality of moral values in his music which transcended any creed or culture.

The spelling "Dunstaple" is generally to be preferred, since it occurs in more than twice as many musical attributions as that of "Dunstable." The few English musical sources are equally divided between "b" and "p"; however, the contemporary non-musical sources, including those with a claim to a direct association with the composer, spell his name with a "p."


John Dunstaple was probably born in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. His birth date is a conjecture based on his earliest surviving works (from around 1410-1420) which imply a birth date of around 1390. Many of the details of his life are based on probable evidence. Nothing is known of his musical training and background. He was clearly a highly educated man, though there is no record of an association with either Oxford or Cambridge universities. He is widely held to have been in the royal service of John, Duke of Bedford, the fourth son of Henry IV of England and brother of Henry V of England. As such, he may have stayed in France for some time, since the Duke was Regent of France from 1423 to 1429, and then Governor of Normandy from 1429 to his death in 1435. He owned property in Normandy, and also in Cambridgeshire, Essex and London, according to tax records of 1436. After the death in 1437 of another patron, the Dowager Joanna of Navarre (Queen Joan), he evidently was in the service of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the fifth son of Henry IV.

Unlike many composers of the time, he was probably not a cleric, though there are links with the St. Albans Cathedral (St. Albans Abbey). He was probably married, based on the record of women sharing his name in his parish, and he also owned a manor in Hertfordshire.

In addition to his work as a composer, he had a contemporary reputation as an astronomer, astrologer and mathematician (for example, a volume in the Bodleian Library, largely in the hand of William Worcester, acknowledges that certain information within it had been copied from Dunstaple's writings). Some of his astrological works have survived in manuscript, possibly in his own hand.

Dunstaple's connections with St. Albans Abbey are at least twofold. First, the abbot John Whethamstede was associated with the Duke of Gloucester, and Dunstaple's isorhythmic motet Albanus roseo rutilat, possibly with some of the Latin words adapted by Whethamstede from an older poem, was clearly written for St Albans. This was reputedly for a visit to the abbey by the Duke of Bedford in 1426. Second, Whethamstede's plan for a magnificent library for the abbey in 1452-53 included a set of twelve stained glass windows devoted to the various branches of learning. Dunstaple is clearly, if not indirectly, referred to in some of the verses the abbot composed for each window. These verses were not only involving music but also astronomy, medicine and astrology.

He died on Christmas Eve 1453, as recorded in his epitaph, which was in the church of St. Stephen Walbrook in London (until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666). This was also his burial place. The epitaph had been recorded in the early seventeenth century, and was reinstated in the church in 1904.

Music and influence

Very few manuscript sources of Dunstaple's works survived in England, as is similarly the case for other fifteenth century composers. Even though England was a center of musical activity, in some respects exceeding even the output of the Burgundian School, almost all of the music was destroyed between 1536 and 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII of England. As a result, most of Dunstaple’s work had to be recovered from continental sources (predominantly northern Italy and the southern Alps). Since numerous copies of his works have been found in Italian and German manuscripts, his fame must have been widespread. He was praised by the French poet Martin Le Franc, who wrote in the massive verse-poem Le Champion des Dames that Dunstaple’s contenance angloise ("English countenance or guise") influenced Dufay and Binchois. Writing a few decades later in about 1476, the Flemish composer and music theorist Tinctoris hailed him as the fons et origo, the chief exponent, of the new art which had originated with the English.

The contenance angloise, while not defined by Martin Le Franc, was probably a reference to Dunstaple's stylistic trait of using full triadic harmony, along with a liking for the interval of the third. Assuming that he had been on the continent with the Duke of Bedford, Dunstaple would have been introduced to French fauxbourdon. Borrowing some of the sonorities, he created elegant harmonies in his own music using thirds and sixths. Taken together, these are seen as defining characteristics of early Renaissance music, and both Le Franc's and Tinctoris's comments suggest that many of these traits may have originated in England, taking root in the Burgundian School around the middle of the century.

There are two big problems facing today's musicologists of the fifteenth century: first, determining which of the many surviving anonymous works were written by which composers and, second, unravelling conflicting attributions. This is made doubly difficult in following and referencing English composers such as Dunstable. Scribes in England frequently copied music without any ascription, rendering them immediately anonymous. While continental scribes were more assidious in this regard, many works published in Dunstaple's name have other, potentially equally valid, attributions in different sources to other composers. These include Gilles Binchois, John Benet, John Bedyngham, John Forest and, most frequently, Leonel Power.

Of the works attributed to John Dunstaple, only about 50 survive, among which are two complete masses, three incomplete but multi-section masses, 14 individual mass sections, 12 complete isorhythmic motets (including the famous one which combines the hymn Veni creator spiritus and the sequence Veni sancte spiritus, and Albanus roseo rutilat as mentioned above). There are also 27 separate settings of various liturgical texts, including three Magnificats and seven settings of Marian antiphons, such as Alma redemptoris Mater and Salve Regina misericordie.

Dunstaple was one of the first to compose masses using a single melody as a cantus firmus. A good example of this technique is his Missa Rex seculorum.

He is believed to have written secular music, but no songs in the vernacular can be attributed to him with any degree of certainty. Yet the French-texted rondeau Puisque m’amour is attributed to Dunstaple in two sources and there is no reason to doubt his authorship. The ballade remained the more favored form for English secular songs at this time and there is limited opportunity for comparison with the rest of his output. The popular melody O rosa bella, once thought to be by Dunstaple, is now attributed to John Bedyngham (or Bedingham). Yet, because so much of the surviving fifteenth century repertory of English carols is anonymous, and Dunstaple is known to have written many, most scholars consider it highly likely, for stylistic as well as statistical reasons, that some of the anonymous carols from this time are actually by Dunstaple.

Dunstaple was probably the most influential English composer of all time, yet he remains an enigma. His complete works were not published until the quincentenary of his death in 1953, but even since then, works have been added and subtracted from his output. We know very little of his life and nothing of his undoubted and vast learning. Scholars can only make an educated guess at most of the chronology of the small amount of music that has come down to us. We understand little of his style, why he wrote as he did, what artistic or technical principles guided his composing, how his music was performed, or why it was so influential.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bent, Margaret. Dunstaple. Oxford Studies of Composers. London: Oxford University Press, 1981. ISBN 0-19-315225-8
  • Dunstable, John, and Orlando Consort. Dunstaple. England: Metronome, 1995. OCLC 34794579
  • Reese, Gustave. Music in the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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