Guillaume Dufay

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Guillaume Dufay

The works of the Netherlandish composer Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400-1474) marked the beginning of the Renaissance and influenced the course of music during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Born probably in the province of Hainaut in what is now Belgium, Guillaume Dufay received his musical training at the cathedral school of Cambrai under Nicholas Malin and Richard Loqueville (1409-ca. 1419). One of Loqueville's three-voice works is preserved in a four-voice arrangement by Dufay. Cambrai was famous for its cathedral school and for its bishop, Pierre d'Ailly, one of the more influential figures in the Church at this time, who was also chancellor of the University of Paris. Dufay may have been in his retinue during the bishop's stay at the Council of Constance (1414-1418).

This gathering of churchmen from all over Europe may have been the occasion of Dufay's introduction to his first Italian patrons, the Malatesta family. He was in Rimini at the court of the Malatestas in 1419/1420; the works he wrote for members of the family date from this time until 1426.

Between 1426 and 1428 Dufay was in Cambrai. A chanson, Adieu ces bon vins de Lannoys, dated 1426 in a contemporary manuscript, may indicate a stay in Laon, a city in which he would hold two benefices in 1430. In 1428 he went to Italy to become a member of the papal chapel, where he remained until 1433. After 2 years in Savoy and Cambrai, Dufay returned to serve in the papal chapel until 1437. During this period his name moves from ninth to first position in the lists of singers.

In his remaining years Dufay's activities can be traced only with difficulty. He is known to have spent much of this time in Cambrai, especially after 1445. According to his will, he also spent at least 5 more years at the court of Savoy. The duchy of Savoy under Louis and his wife, Anne of Cyprus, boasted one of the best chapels in Europe. It appears that during Dufay's later stay in Savoy he received a degree in law from the University of Turin. An incomplete motet, Juvenis qui puellam, jokingly portrays the disputation required of a degree candidate.

Dufay became a canon at St. Waltrudis in Mons in 1446, having also received a canonicate in Cambrai in 1436. At St. Waltrudis he met the composer Gilles Binchois, who was a canon there. Dufay also had some connection with the Burgundian court in this period since he is named as a member of the chapel of the Duke of Burgundy in a document that is not, however, from that court. The title may have been an honorary one since Dufay's presence there cannot be documented.

The last 30 years of Dufay's life were centered on the Cathedral at Cambrai. Archival documents from the Cathedral contain references to the copying of his music and, on at least one occasion, to the payment to him of 60 écus for having enriched the services with his music. His fame was widespread; for example, in 1458 he was invited to Besançon to arbitrate a dispute over the mode of an antiphon, and later Piero de' Medici referred to Dufay as the ornament of his age. He died in Cambrai on Nov. 27, 1474.

Dufay's will, which is preserved, indicates that he achieved considerable material success in life. He made bequests of artworks, music books, and money to various individuals and institutions, including the bequest of four music books to Charles the Bold of Burgundy. He also requested the performance of some of his own music in his last hour and for his last rites. The motet he specified, Ave Regina caelorum, is preserved and has, in addition to the traditional text, a plea for "mercy on thy dying Dufay," indicating that he probably composed it for this purpose. The Requiem Mass he asked to have performed is the earliest polyphonic setting of this service; it has not been preserved.

Dufay achieved a synthesis of the different national styles of the early 15th century. His earliest works are naturally French in nature, but those written in the 1420s show the strong impression the flowing vocal lines of Italian music made on the young composer. This is especially true in his setting of Petrarch's Vergine bella. The works of the late 1420s and 1430s give evidence of possible contact with English music and its "sweet sound" of thirds, sixths, and full triads. This mature style is the beginning of the international style of the Renaissance, and it is the music that the theorist Johannes Tinctoris (ca. 1476) calls the "new art … whose fount and origin is held to be among the English, of whom Dunstable stood forth as chief. Contemporary with him in France were Dufay and Binchois, to whom directly succeeded the moderns Ockeghem, Busnois, Regis and Caron." The poet Martin le Franc in his Le Champion des dames (1441-1442) writes that Dufay "has taken the English countenance and follows Dunstable."

More than 200 compositions by Dufay have been preserved. These include all genres common at the time: Mass Ordinaries, both individual movements and cycles, Mass Propers, motets, and minor liturgical works, as well as French chansons and settings of Italian texts. He used the older isorhythmic technique, but only for festival motets where this older technique would carry a certain connotation suitable to the occasion. He was among the earliest Continental composers to compose cyclic Mass Ordinaries and one of the first to use a secular cantus firmus (in the Mass Se la face ay pale). He also composed a cycle of hymns for the Church year. In these works one finds the "sweet sound" of thirds, sixths, and full triads and classic examples of fauxbourdon. His chansons, datable in all periods of his creative life, show the changes in style taking place in the 15th century; changes in conception of melody, harmony, and metric flow gradually occur from the earliest to the latest of these works. His style, a fusion of features of French, Italian, and English music of the 1420s, becomes the starting point for composers whose line extends into the 16th century.

Further Reading

A good treatment of Dufay's life and work and his position in history is in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959).

Additional Sources

Fallows, David, Dufay, New York: Vintage Books, 1988, 1982. □

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Dominant Renaissance composer of the Burgundian school; b. Hainault?, Flanders, c. 1400; d. Cambrai, Nov. 27, 1474. After serving first as a choirboy at Cambrai and later with the Malatesta family in Italy, Dufay held various posts, including that of singer in the papal choir (142833, 143537), before returning north to serve at the Burgundian court and as director of cathedral music in Cambrai. His reputation as the greatest composer of his day did much to make both places important music centers. Eight Masses definitely known to be his survive, as well as numerous Mass sections. Several Masses are of the cantus firmus type, based on either plainsong or secular melodies like his own chansons. His Missa Caput, based on a cantus firmus from the sarum rite, became the model for Masses on the same melody by Okeghem and Obrecht. At least 20 composers (including Busnois, Okeghem, Desprez, Morales, and Palestrina) wrote Masses on the material of his Missa L'Homme Armé. A lost Requiem was probably the earliest polyphonic requi em mass. Dufay's motets are of conspicuous merit, e.g., the complicated Nuper rosarum flores, written for the consecration of the Duomo in Florence; the impressive troped Ave Regina Caelorum, which he wished sung over his deathbed; and the lovely and tender Alma Redemptoris Mater (which paraphrases the plainsong with fine effect). His hymn settings, written c. 1430 for the papal choir but widespread in popularity, constitute a cycle for the entire Church year. There is also a large body of semi-sacred and secular music, including a slightly italianate Vergine bella that sets stanza one of Petrarch's celebrated poem; and a Lamentatio sanctae matris Ecclesiae constantinopolitanae, written c. 1454, on the fall of Constantinople.

Bibliography: Opera omnia, ed. g. de van and h. besseler (Corpus mensurabilis musicae, ed. American Institute of Musicology 1; 1947). c. van den borren, Guillaume Dufay: Centre de rayonnement de la polyphonie européenne (Brussels 1939); Études sur le XV e siècle musical (Antwerp 1941). h. besseler, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. f. blume (Kassel-Basel 1949) 3:889912. m. f. bukofzer, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (New York 1950). r. bockholdt, Die frühen Messenkompositionen von Guillaume Dufay, 2 v. (Tutzing 1960). g. reese, Music in the Renaissance (rev. ed. New York 1959). e. h. sparks, Cantus Firmus in Mass and Motet (Berkeley 1963). c. e. hamm, A Chronology of the Works of Guillaume Dufay, (Princeton, N.J. 1964). c. beate, "Metrum und Rhythmus in einigen Rondeaux von Guillaume Dufay: Anmerkungen zur Auffassung von Rhythmus und Metrum im 15. Jahrhundert," Musiktheorie, 12 (1997) 147164. b. haggh, "Guillaume Du Fay's Birthplace: Some Notes on a Hypothesis," Revue Belge de Musicologie, 51 (1997) 1721. l. holford-strevens, "Du Fay the Poet? Problems in the Texts of His Motets," in Early Music History 16: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Music, ed. i. fenlon (Cambridge, Eng. 1997) 97165. a.-m. mathy, "Guillaume Dufay et la culture Florentine au début du quattrocento," Esercizi: Musica e Spettacolo, 1617 (199798) 531. a. e. planchart, "Notes on Guillaume Du Fay's Last Works," Journal of Musicology, 13 (1995) 5572. r. c. wegman, "Miserere supplicanti Dufay: The Creation and Transmission of Guillaume Dufay's Missa Ave regina celorum, " Journal of Musicology, 13 (1995) 1854. l. welker, "Dufay Songs in German Manuscripts," in Music in the German Renaissance: Sources, Styles, and Contexts, ed. j. kmetz (Cambridge, Eng. 1994) 326.

[c. v. brooks]

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Guillaume Dufay

c. 1397–1474



Born near Brussels, Dufay was educated in the school of the Cathedral of Cambrai in what is now modern Belgium. He completed his education around 1414, took holy orders, and set off for the Council of Constance, which was then meeting in the north of Switzerland. After 1420, Dufay became a member of the Malatesta court, which ruled the cities of Pesaro and Rimini in Italy. Several compositions survive from these early years of his career. Like many fifteenth-century Burgundian musicians and composers, Dufay spent most of his life moving from court to court, accepting short stints of patronage and working in important choirs. By the mid-1420s he was in León in France, but he soon returned to Italy. In this period he first served a cardinal at Bologna, then moved on to become a member of the papal choir. Later he became a member of the Duke of Savoy's household, the head of an important state on the northwestern border of Italy, before joining the papal household once again. Between 1435 and 1437, Dufay spent most of his time in Bologna and Florence, where he continued to serve the pope. In this period he wrote his famous mass, Nuper rosarum flores, a work commissioned for the dedication of the dome of the Cathedral of Florence. Gianozzo Manetti, a Florentine humanist, attended this celebration, and later described the piece as "filled with such choruses of harmony and such a concert of diverse instruments that it seemed … as though the symphonies and songs of the angels and of divine paradise had been sent from Heaven to whisper in our ears an unbelievable celestial sweetness." Dufay returned to work for the Duke of Savoy for a short time in the late 1430s, and again for a longer six-year stay during the 1450s. But he spent most of his middle and older years at Cambrai, near the place of his birth.


Dufay's career coincided with the rise of the Burgundian musical style throughout Europe, and he achieved recognition during his life as one of the greatest of its composers. Like other Burgundian composers, he made use of the innovations that had recently been imported into Northern Europe from England. From John Dunstaple and other Englishmen, the composers active in France and the Netherlands during the fifteenth century adopted more complex rhythms and the use of the closer harmonies of the fauxbourdon. Fauxbourdon made use of intervals of thirds and sixths to set the harmony against a plainsong tune that continued to reside in the tenor voice. Eventually, the musical writing that flourished as a result of the popularity of the fauxbourdon tended to become more homophonic, that is, it sounded more like a melody with harmonic accompaniment. In addition, the works of composers like Dufay helped to win acceptance for the use of the third and the sixth, intervals that until this time had often been avoided as dissonances. Dufay was one of the fifteenth-century figures who tamed these intervals, helping to train the Western ear so that these sounds appeared more consonant than previously. As a composer he wrote a wide variety of music, including masses, magnificats, chansons, and motets, much of which survives in important manuscript collections throughout Europe.


D. Fallows, Dufay (London, England: Vintage, 1987).

C. Reynolds, "Dufay, Guillaume," in Encyclopedia of the Renaissance (New York: Scribner, 1999).

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Guillaume Dufay



The Sacred and the Secular.

Guillaume Dufay (1397–1474) was born near Cambrai in northern France, where he is first recorded as a member of the cathedral choir in 1409. He became a priest and received a degree in canon law from the University of Bologna. Throughout his career he traveled widely, being associated with the court of Burgundy, the Papal Chapel, the duke of Savoy, and the Malatesta family in the Italian towns of Pesaro and Rimini. He was appointed a canon (a member of clergy on permanent staff) of the Cathedral of Cambrai by Pope Eugenius IV, and he returned there at the end of his life. Dufay's compositions are widely considered to be among the finest creations of his generation. His works include settings of the Ordinary and the Proper of the Mass, Latin motets and hymns, and secular songs in Latin, French, and Italian. His Mass for St. Anthony of Padua may have been written for the dedication of Donatello's great altar in the Church of St. Anthony in Padua in 1450. He was one of the earliest to write cyclic masses based on non-sacred material: his Missa Se la face ay pale (1452) is based on a love song he had written earlier. Of the many outstanding compositions by Dufay, two of his motets are especially significant in terms of their commemorations. His Nuper rosarum flores was written in 1436 for the consecration of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florence cathedral, on the completion of the dome by Fillipo Brunelleschi. Lamentatio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae was written in 1454 on the occasion of the Banquet of the Feast of the Pheasant in Lille, in which Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, pledged to recapture Constantinople and reunite the Holy Roman Empire. The borrowed tenor in this motet is from the Lamentations of Jeremiah in Latin, with a French text in the upper voices that glosses (that is, translates and explains) that of the tenor.


David Fallows, Dufay. Rev. ed. (London: J. M. Dent, 1987).

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Guillaume Dufay (gēyōm´ düfā´), c.1400–1474, principal composer at the Burgundian court. After his early training in the cathedral choir at Cambrai, he sang in the papal chapel in Rome (1428–33) and later in Florence and Bologna (1435–37). He was in the service of the antipope Felix V for seven years and was a canon of the cathedral of Cambrai, where he lived from 1445 until his death. He traveled a great deal, knew many musical styles, and was highly esteemed by his contemporaries. His music is in the northern French tradition, but contains some Italian and English elements. He composed three-part chansons, masses, and motets.

See studies by Hamm (1964) and Fallows (1982).

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Dufay, Guillaume (1400–74) Burgundian composer. He composed many motets and settings of the liturgy. His motets were grand, complex compositions written for specific events. He wrote some outstanding masses and secular songs.