Guillaume Dufay

From New World Encyclopedia

Du Fay (left), with Gilles Binchois

Guillaume Dufay (sometimes Du Fay or Du Fayt) (August 5, 1397 – November 27, 1474) was a Franco-Flemish composer and music theorist of the late Medieval music/early Renaissance music period. As the central figure in the Burgundian School, he was the most famous and influential composer in Europe in the mid-fifteenth century.

Early life

From the evidence of his will, he was probably born in Beersel, in the vicinity of Brussels. He was the illegitimate child of an unknown priest and a woman named Marie Du Fayt. Marie moved with her son to Cambrai early in his life, staying with a relative who was a canon of the cathedral there. Soon Dufay's musical gifts were noticed by the cathedral authorities, who evidently gave him a thorough training in music. He studied with Rogier de Hesdin during the summer of 1409, and he was listed as a choirboy in the cathedral from 1409 to 1412. During those years, he studied with Nicolas Malin, and the authorities must have been impressed with the boy's gifts because they gave him his own copy of Villedieu’s Doctrinale in 1411, a highly unusual event for one so young. In June 1414, at the age of only 16, he had already been given a benefice as chaplain at St. Géry, immediately adjacent to Cambrai. Later that year he probably went to the Council of Constance (Konstanz), staying possibly until 1418, at which time he returned to Cambrai.

From November 1418 to 1420, he was a subdeacon at Cambrai Cathedral. In 1420, he left Cambrai again, this time going to Rimini, and possibly Pesaro, where he worked for the family of the House of Malatesta. Although no records survive of his employment there, several compositions of his can be dated to this period. They contain references which make a residence in Italy reasonably certain. It was there that he met the composers Hugo de Lantins and Arnold de Lantins, who were among the musicians of the House of Malatesta household. In 1424, Dufay again returned to Cambrai, this time because of the illness and subsequent death of the relative with whom his mother was staying. By 1426, however, he had gone back to Italy, this time to Bologna, where he entered the service of Cardinal Louis Aleman, the papal legate. While in Bologna he became a deacon, and by 1428, he was a priest.

Life in Rome

Cardinal Aleman was driven from Bologna by the rival Canedoli family in 1428, and Dufay also left at this time, going to Rome. He became a member of the Papal Choir, serving Pope Martin V, and then after the death of Pope Martin in 1431, Pope Eugene IV. In 1434, he was appointed maistre de chappelle in Savoy, where he served Duke Amédée VIII. He left Rome because of a crisis in the finances of the papal choir, and to escape the turbulence and uncertainty during the struggle between the papacy and the Council of Basel. Yet in 1435, he was again in the service of the papal chapel, but this time it was in Florence. Pope Eugene had now been driven from Rome in 1434, by the establishment of an insurrectionary republic there, sympathetic to the Council of Basel and the Conciliar movement (Conciliarism). In 1436, Dufay composed the festive motet Nuper rosarum flores, one of his most famous compositions, which was sung at the dedication of Filippo Brunelleschi's dome of the cathedral in Florence, where Eugene lived in exile.

During this period, Dufay also began his long association with the d'Este family in Ferrara, some of the most important musical patrons of the Renaissance, and with which he probably had become acquainted during the days of his association with the Malatesta family. Rimini and Ferrara are not only geographically close, but the two families were related by marriage, and Dufay composed at least one ballade for Niccolò III, Marquis of Ferrara. In 1437, Dufay visited the town. When Niccolò died in 1441, the next Marquis maintained the contact with Dufay, and not only continued financial support for the composer but copied and distributed some of his music.

The struggle between the papacy and the Council of Basel continued through the 1430s. Evidently Dufay realized that his own position might be threatened by the spreading conflict, especially since Pope Eugene was deposed in 1439 by the Council and replaced by Duke Amédée of Savoy himself, as Pope (Antipope) Felix V. At this time Dufay returned to his homeland, arriving in Cambrai by December of that year. In order to be a canon at Cambrai, he needed a law degree, which he obtained in 1437. He may have studied at Turin University in 1436. One of the first documents mentioning him in Cambrai is dated December 27, 1440, when he received a delivery of 36 lots of wine for the feast of St. John the Evangelist.

Dufay was to remain in Cambrai through the 1440s, and during this time he was also in the service of the Duke of Burgundy. While in Cambrai, he collaborated with Nicolas Grenon on a complete revision of the liturgical musical collection of the cathedral, which included writing an extensive collection of polyphonic music for services. In addition to his musical work, he was active in the general administration of the cathedral. In 1444, his mother Marie died, and was buried in the cathedral. In 1445, Dufay moved into the house of the previous canon, which was to remain his primary residence for the rest of his life.

Later life

After the abdication of the last antipope (Felix V) in 1449, his own former employer Duke Amédée VIII of Savoy, the struggle between different factions within the Church began to heal, and Dufay once again left Cambrai for points south. He went to Turin in 1450, shortly before the death of Duke Amédée, but returned to Cambrai later that year, and in 1452, he went back to Savoy yet again. This time he did not return to Cambrai for six years, but attempted to find either a benefice or an employment which would allow him to stay in Italy. Numerous compositions, including one of the four Lamentationes that he composed on the fall of Constantinople in 1453, his famous mass based on Se la face ay pale, as well as a letter to Lorenzo de'Medici, survive from this period. Yet as he was unable to find a satisfactory position for his retirement, he returned north in 1458. While in Savoy he served more-or-less officially as choirmaster for Louis of Savoy, but he was more likely in a ceremonial role, since the records of the chapel never mention him.

When he returned to Cambrai for his final years, he was appointed canon of the cathedral. He was now the most renowned composer in Europe. Once again he established close ties to the court of Burgundy, and continued to compose music for them. He received many visitors, including Busnois, Ockeghem, Tinctoris, and Loyset Compère, all of whom were decisive in the development of the polyphonic style of the next generation. During this period, he probably wrote his mass based on L'homme armé, as well as the chanson on the same song. The latter composition may have been inspired by Philip the Good's call for a new crusade against the Turks, who had recently captured Constantinople. He also wrote a Requiem mass around 1460, which is lost.

After an illness of several weeks, Dufay died on November 27, 1474. He had requested that his motet Ave regina celorum be sung for him as he died, with pleas for mercy interpolated between verses of the antiphon, but time was insufficient for this to be arranged. Dufay was buried in the chapel of St. Etienne in the cathedral of Cambrai with his portrait carved onto his tombstone. After the destruction of the cathedral, the tombstone was lost, but it was found in 1859 (it was being used to cover a well), and is now in a museum in Lille.

Music and influence

Dufay was among the most influential composers of the fifteenth century, and his music was copied, distributed and sung everywhere that polyphony had taken root. Almost all composers of the succeeding generations absorbed some elements of his style. The wide distribution of his music is all the more impressive considering that he died several decades before the availability of music printing.

Dufay wrote in most of the common forms of the day, including masses, motets, Magnificats, hymns, simple chant settings in fauxbourdon, and antiphons within the area of sacred music. There were also rondeaux, musical forms of the ballades, virelais and a few other chanson types within the realm of secular music. None of his surviving music is specifically instrumental, although instruments were certainly used for some of his secular music, especially for the lower parts. All of his sacred music are vocal. Instruments may have been used to reinforce the voices in actual performance for almost any portion of his output. In all, 11 isorhythmic motets, 8 non-isorhythmic motets, 7 complete masses and many independent movements of masses, 15 settings of the Proper of the mass, 3 Magnificats, 15 antiphons, 24 hymns, and 87 three- or four-voiced French secular songs survive with reliable attribution. In addition, a large amount of the anonymous repertory of the middle fifteenth century may be his work. Assigning works to Dufay based on alleged stylistic similarities has been a favorite pastime of musicologists for at least a hundred years, judging from the copious literature on the subject.


At the beginning of Dufay's career, the cyclic mass—the setting of all the parts of the Mass Ordinary by a single composer, unified by a common musical means, such as a cantus firmus—was in its infancy. By the end of his career, the cyclic mass had become the predominant and most substantial form of sacred music composition in Europe.

Dufay's first complete cyclic masses, the Missa sine nomine and the Missa S Jacobi, were written before 1440, and contain possibly the earliest use of fauxbourdon. In addition, most of Dufay's early mass compositions used the "head motif" technique, such as the beginnings of sections which shared a common, and easily identifiable, musical idea. Yet, by the 1450s, Dufay's masses were much influenced by the English style (for example, the music of John Dunstable) in that his masses of this period mostly use a cantus firmus technique, and also isorhythm, as in his motets. He left behind the archaic head motif technique. Still later in the period, Dufay began to use a more seamless contrapuntal technique with occasional musical imitation, a style which foreshadowed the work of Obrecht and Ockeghem. One late mass, the Missa 'Ave regina,' based on a Marian antiphon setting of that name he wrote in 1463, uses all of the techniques Dufay used during his career, and may have been written as a deliberate summation.

Dufay's late masses are all tenor masses, such as the cantus firmus is in the tenor. While this style originated in England with composers such as Leonel Power and Dunstable, Dufay brought it to the continent.


Most of Dufay's motets were relatively early works, and he seems not to have written any during the last thirty years of his life. His motets were apparently not intended for liturgical use, but instead were written for specific occasions, sometimes considerably ceremonial ones. This gives biographers extremely valuable data, since many can be dated exactly.

In style, they are isorhythmic, using a structural method which had been in use already for more than a hundred years. Additionally, they are compositions of considerable complexity, with the isorhythm often occurring in all voices. Sometimes the sections of the motets themselves are carefully contrived to have a symbolic value, such as in the motet Nuper rosarum flores, written for the dedication of Filippo Brunelleschi's dome to the cathedral in Florence on March 25, 1436. This motet's proportions of the sections exactly match the supposed proportions of Solomon's Temple. Dufay himself probably took part in this performance, and an eyewitness account attests to the presence of numerous string and wind players at the performance, who filled the chamber with their sounds during the impressive ceremony. They more than likely also accompanied the motet. Dufay evidently thought enough of his own motet to quote its coda at the end of the last isorhythmic motet he ever wrote, Fulgens iubar, in 1447.

Dufay also composed four laments on the fall of Constantinople (1453). Only one of these survives, O tres piteulx/Omnes amici eius, written sometime between 1454 and 1457. While technically not classed as a motet, it has a similar texture and uses a cantus firmus.

Chant settings and fauxbourdon

Many of Dufay's compositions were simple settings of a chant, obviously designed for liturgical use, likely as substitutes for the unadorned chant, and can be seen as chant harmonizations. Often the harmonization used a technique of parallel writing known as fauxbourdon, as in the following example, a setting of the Marian antiphon Ave maris stella:

The beginning of Dufay's setting of Ave maris stella, in fauxbourdon. The top and bottom lines are freely composed. The middle line, designated "fauxbourdon" in the original chant, follows the top line but exactly a perfect fourth below. The bottom line is often, but not always, a sixth below the top line. It is embellished, and reaches cadences on the octave.

Dufay may have been the first composer to use the term fauxbourdon to describe this style, which was prominent in fifteenth century liturgical music, especially that of the Burgundian school.

Secular music

Most of Dufay's secular songs follow the formes fixes (the poetic rondeau, the musical form of the ballade, and virelai), which dominated secular European music of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He also wrote a handful of Italian ballata, almost certainly while he was in Italy. As is the case with his motets, many of the songs were written for specific occasions, and many are datable, thus supplying useful biographical information.

Most of his songs are for three voices, using a texture dominated by the highest voice. The other two voices, unsupplied with text, were likely played by instruments. Occasionally, Dufay used four voices, but in a number of these songs the fourth voice was supplied by a later, usually anonymous, composer. Typically he used the rondeau form when writing love songs. His latest secular songs show influences from Busnois and Ockeghem, and the rhythmic and melodic differentiation between the voices is less. As in the work of other composers of the mid-fifteenth century, he was beginning to tend towards the smooth polyphony which was to become the predominant style fifty years later.

A typical ballade is Resvellies vous et faites chiere lye, which was probably written in 1423, for the marriage of Carlo Malatesta and Vittoria Colonna. The musical form is aabC for each stanza, with C being the refrain. The musical setting emphasizes passages in the text which specifically refer to the couple being married.


Dufay was not an innovator, with the exception of a few late works, and wrote within a stable tradition. He 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. His compositions within the larger genres, including masses, motets, and chansons, are mostly similar to each other. His renown is largely due to what was perceived as his perfect control of the forms in which he worked, as well as his gift for memorable and singable melodies. During the fifteenth century he was universally regarded as the greatest composer of the time, and that belief has largely persisted to the present day.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fallows, David. Dufay. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1987. ISBN 0-460-02493-0
  • Gleason, Harold and Warren Becker. Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Bloomington, Indiana: Frangipani Press, 1986. ISBN 0-89917-034-X
  • Hamm, Charles. "Guillaume Dufay." in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • Reese, Gustave. Music in the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4

External links

All links retrieved July 18, 2017.


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