Personalities | Guillaume Du Fay | Medieval Era | Classical

(Ge-yom’ Düfa’) c. 1397–1474
French composer

Du Fay is regarded as the leading musical figure of his generation, and his reputation in his own time is emphasized by his employment at many of the most important musical centres in Europe.

He grew up in Cambrai, where his skills were recognized early by the ecclesiastical authorities, and in his late teens he was taken into the retinue of a senior churchman. Thus began a life of service to the church, noble patronage and travel around Europe. Much of his biography can be written in minute detail, although some remains conjecture.

His music covers virtually all the polyphonic genres of his day: songs in the formes fixes, Masses, motets (both isorhythmic and freely composed) and hymns. He employed a number of techniques, including cantus firmus settings, plainchant paraphrases (where one of the voices elaborates on the chant melody) and fauxbourdon (two notated voices, one an octave higher than plainchant, the other forming sixths and octaves below it), often combining these procedures. There is a gradual shift from a slightly disjunct late-medieval style, in which small melodic motifs abound in a context of fast-moving upper voices and slower rhythm in the lower parts, to a smoother and more homogeneous rhythmic and melodic texture. His response to the music of his older contemporary Dunstaple is clear in a number of ways: for example, in his interest in fauxbourdon, which can be related to the English discant style, as well as in his later Mass cycles based on a cantus firmus.

Musical Pioneer

In his isorhythmic motets Du Fay referred both to the works of Ciconia and to French music of the fourteenth century, producing densely textured works structured with isorhythm and related techniques in all voices. Some of these pieces, such as Nuper rosarum flores (1436) and ‘Ecclesie militantis’, are very impressive in structure and sound. His freely composed settings of texts for ceremonial or liturgical use, sometimes called cantilenas, are among his most interesting works. This was a relatively new way of composing music for such texts, and he ranged from simple settings of melodies resembling plainchant to complex textures similar to those in his isorhythmic motets.

Much attention has justifiably been given to Du Fay’s Masses. His earliest works are isolated movements or pairs. One of his first Mass cycles shares musical material with his song, ‘Resveilliés vous’ (‘Awaken’, 1423) and another cycle, the Missa Sancti Jacobi, is a so-called plenary Mass – one with settings of the Proper as well as the Ordinary. His later Masses show the influence of the ‘Caput’ Mass of c. 1440 (for many years he was thought to have been the composer of this work as well). The Mass Ave Regina celorum, written late in his life and based on his motet of the same name, epitomizes his approaches to music for the Mass throughout his career.

Nuper Rosarum Flores

Perhaps Du Fay’s most famous work, however, is...

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