Composer of the Day: Guillaume Dufay (1397 – 1474)

Guillaume Dufay (1397 – 1474) was a French composer, the illegitimate son of a priest. During his twenties he went to Italy and eventually sang in the papal chapel. In his music we can see many Medieval priorities as well as several new innovations. We can see the use of Medieval counterpoint, where one voice goes up and the other goes down, with voices coming together at consonant intervals. Medieval counterpoint is beautifully straight forward and is a good starting point for the young composer of today. In the Medieval mind, consonant intervals were octaves, perfect fourths and fifths, and unisons. Thirds were still considered dissonances and like other dissonances were used in passing. We can see these countrapuntal practices in Dufay’s Credo from “Missa l’Homme Armé”.

By way of innovations, we can also start to see the use of sharps to create a movable mi fa relationship or a half step between other notes besides the standard mi fa and ti do notes, something we begin to see in late Medieval music. Because of the use of these sharps, Dufay’s music takes unexpected turns and has a colorful quality and rich harmonies that cause many scholars to suggest that his music paves the way for the music of the Renaissance*.

This music is also innovative in another way. As we can learn from the organum from the Florence Manuscript, Medieval composers took preexisting material and worked with it to construct their music. They weren’t creating something from nothing, but were taking material that already existed and crafting it into something else, in the case of the Florence Manuscript organum, they were taking older church cantus and using it as the tenor, the held, slow bottom part underneath the new counterpoint. Well, Dufay was a composer who used not sacred music, but a secular tune, l’Homme Armé, as the tenor for his Mass. This practice became a very popular one in the years following, and Dufay may have been the one with whom this practice originated. Copyright didn’t exist then, so composers were free to use each other’s music for the basis of their own compositions, so as to build on previous innovations and ideas unhindered.

*Note: We should take note here that terms like “Renaissance” and “Medieval” are merely helpful labels for us today. People living during these times did necessarily use them, nor did they see curtains fall on such and such a year marking the end of an era and the beginning of another one. On the contrary, music is an example of how ideas develop, continue, and change over time. Many of the priorities people had during the Middle Ages are still held today.

Here is a link to a sheet music edition of Dufay’s Credo from “Missa l’Homme Armé”:

http://imslp.org/wiki/Missa_l%27Homme_Arm%C3%A9_%28Dufay,_Guillaume%29

Credo from “Missa l’Homme Armé”

Cantica Symphonia, Provided to YouTube by NAXOS of America

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