Friday, January 4, 8380

John Dunstable (c. 1380-1453) - Fauxbourdon

John Dunstable (1380-1453)

Sancta Maria (1410)

John Dunstable - Quam Pulchra Es

John Dunstable or Dunstaple (c. 1380 – December 24, 1453) was an English composer of polyphonic music of the early Renaissance. He was one of the most famous composers active in the early 15th century, a contemporary of Leonel Power, and was widely influential, not only in England but on the continent, especially in the developing style of the Burgundian School.

The spelling "Dunstaple" 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."

Dunstable was probably born in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. His birth date is a conjecture based on his earliest surviving works (from around 1410-1420). Many of the details of his life are conjectural. 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 and brother of Henry V. 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 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 St Albans Abbey (see below); 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.

Dunstable's connections with St Albans Abbey are at least twofold:

the abbot John Whethamstede is 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, possibly for a visit to the abbey by the Duke of Bedford in 1426.

Whethamstede's plan for a magnificent library for the abbey in 1452-3 included a set of twelve stained glass windows devoted to the various branches of learning. Dunstaple is clearly, if indirectly, referred to in some of the verses the abbot composed for each window, not only music but also astronomy, medicine, and astrology.

Dunstable 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 1666). This was also his burial place. The epitaph - stating that he had "secret knowledge of the stars" - had been recorded in the early 17th century, and was reinstated in the church in 1904.

Dunstable's influence on the continent's musical vocabulary was enormous, particularly considering the relative paucity of his (attributable) works. He was recognized for possessing something never heard before in music of the Burgundian School: la contenance angloise ("the English countenance"), a term used by the poet Martin le Franc in his Le Champion des Dames.

Le Franc added that the style influenced Dufay and Binchois -- high praise indeed.

Writing a few decades later in about 1476, the Flemish composer and music theorist Tinctoris reaffirmed the powerful influence Dunstaple had, stressing the "new art" that Dunstable had inspired. Tinctoris hailed Dunstable as the fons et origo of the style, its "wellspring and origin."

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, Dunstable 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.

Very few manuscript sources of Dunstable's works survived in England, as is similarly the case for other 15th century composers. Even though England was a centre of musical activity, in some respects exceeding even the output of the continent, almost all of the music was destroyed between 1536 and 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. As a result, most of Dunstable’s work had to be recovered from continental sources (predominantly northern Italy and the southern Alps).

Because numerous copies of his works have been found in Italian and German manuscripts, his fame must have been widespread. Two problems face musicologists of the 15th century: first, determining which of the many surviving anonymous works were written by which composers and, second, unravelling conflicting attributions. This is made even more difficult for English composers such as Dunstaple: scribes in England frequently copied music without any ascription, rendering it immediately anonymous; and, while continental scribes were more assiduous in this regard, many works published in Dunstable's name have other, potentially equally valid, attributions in different sources to other composers, including Binchois, John Benet, John Bedyngham, John Forest and, most frequently, Leonel Power.

Of the works attributed to him only about 50 survive, among which are two complete masses, three incomplete but multi-section masses, fourteen individual mass sections, twelve complete isorhythmic motets (including the famous one which combines the hymn Veni creator spiritus and the sequence Veni sancte spiritus, and the less well-known Albanus roseo rutilat), as well as twenty-seven separate settings of various liturgical texts, including three Magnificats and seven settings of Marian antiphons, such as Alma redemptoris Mater and Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae.

Dunstaple was one of the first to compose masses using a single melody as 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: although 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 favoured form for English secular song 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 Dunstable, is now attributed to John Bedyngham (or Bedingham). Yet, because so much of the surviving 15th-century repertory of English carols is anonymous, and Dunstable 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 Dunstable.

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 oeuvre; we know very little of his life and nothing of his undoubted learning; we can only make an educated guess at most of the chronology of the small amount of music that has come down to us; and 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.


Fauxbourdon (also Fauxbordon, and also commonly two words: Faux bourdon) – French for false bass – is a technique of musical harmonization used in the early Renaissance, particularly by composers of the Burgundian School. Guillaume Dufay was a prominent practitioner of the form.

In its simplest form, fauxbourdon consists of the cantus firmus and two other parts a sixth and a perfect fourth below. To prevent monotony, or create a cadence, the lowest voice sometimes jumps down to the octave, and any of the accompanying voices may have minor embellishments. Usually just a small part of a composition employs the fauxbourdon technique.

In fauxbourdon, the top and bottom lines are freely composed; the middle line, designated "fauxbourdon" in the original, 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.

The earliest example of fauxbourdon may be in the Bologna manuscript I-BC Q15 (Bologna, Civico museo bibliografico musicale, Q15), compiled around 1440, which contains several examples, including one by Dufay, dating probably to around 1430. Since many early 15th century compositions are anonymous, and dating is often problematic, exact determination of the authorship of the earliest fauxbourdon is difficult. Dufay's contribution to this collection contains the first actual use of the term, in the closing part of his Missa Sancti Jacobi. It is possible that his use of the word "bourdon" was intended as a pun on St. James' "staff" (which Dufay, or the copyist, drew in miniature above the music).

The earliest definitely datable example of fauxbourdon is in a motet by Dufay, Supremum est mortalibus, which was written for the treaty reconciling the differences between Pope Eugene IV and Sigismund, after which Sigismund was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor, which happened on May 31, 1433. In this motet, which is for four voices, when the tenor—the lowest voice—drops out, the upper three voices proceed in fauxbourdon.

Even though its first use appears to have been in Italy, fauxbourdon was to become a defining characteristic of the Burgundian style which flourished in the Low Countries through the middle of the 15th century. Composers such as Gilles Binchois, Antoine Busnois, and Johannes Brassart all frequently used the technique, always adapting it to their personal styles.

A related, but separate development took place in England in the 15th century, called faburden. While superficially similar, especially in that it involved chains of 6-3 chords with octave-fifth consonances at the ends of phrases, faburden was a schematic method of harmonization of an existing chant; in the case of faburden, the chant was in the middle voice.

[8380 Power / 8380 Dunstable / 8370 Cordier]