Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474)

[From Martin le Franc's  Le Champion des Dames  (1451)]

[From Martin le Franc's Le Champion des Dames (1451)]

Guillaume Du Fay was probably born in Beersel, near Brussels, in 1398, the child of an unknown priest and a woman named Marie Du Fayt. Du Fayt soon moved with her son to Cambrai, where Du Fay became a choirboy in the Cathedral in 1409. Du Fay's musical ability was noted early on. Around 1420 he moved to the Italian city of Rimini for two years in the service of Carlo Malatesta, and later joined the Papal singers. From about 1440 onwards he was either in Cambrai or Mons, supervising in particular the music of Cambrai Cathedral. An interesting insight into the musical traffic of the time is given by the French writer Martin le Franc, who wrote in his Champion des dames that such composers as Du Fay and Gilles Binchois owed their superiority to what they learned from John Dunstable’s ‘English manner’.

There is left of Du Fay’s music 7 complete Masses, 28 individual Mass movements, 15 settings of chant used in Mass propers, 3 Magnificats, 2 Benedicamus Domino settings, 15 antiphon settings (six of them Marian antiphons), 27 hymns, and 22 motets.

Du Fay was a central figure in the Burgundian school, alongside Binchois and Antoine Busnois, among others. Together, their works represent part of a crucial shift from the isorhythmic techniques prevalent in fourteenth-century music to the more refined polyphonic techniques associated with Renaissance choir music.

What to listen for: Du Fay is one of the early composers featured on this website, and his music occupies a different sound world from that of many of his predecessors. His music is relevant to the later composers of the Renaissance, particularly because of the link he represents between plainsong and polyphony. The starting point for much of Du Fay's music is a plainsong cantus-firmus, which is sung by one of the voices. The other parts are then composed around this initial melody. Du Fay took this technique to new levels of sophistication, as can be heard in the video above. Here, in Ave regina caelorum, the tenor part (which carries the cantus-firmus) is only introduced after an opening section sung by two higher voices. The plainsong is therefore not so much the foundation for the other parts to be built on, as the inspiration for a freer and more creative composition.

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Du Fay’s tombstone, originally in Cambrai Cathedral, which was destroyed, is now in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Lille. The figure at the bottom right represents Du Fay himself. The inscription reads

« Ci-dessous gît vénérable homme Maître Guillaume Du Fay, musicien, bachelier en droit, jadis enfant de chœur puis chanoine de cette église, chanoine de Sainte-Waudru de Mons, qui mourut l’an du Seigneur 1474, le 27e jour de novembre. » [Here lies the venerable man Master Guillaume Du Fay, musician, bachelor of law, formerly a choirboy and later canon of this church, canon of Sainte-Waudru of Mons, who died in the year of our Lord 1474 on the 27th of November.]