Guillaume Dufay: a renowned Franco-Flemish composer

Guillaume Dufay was born on the 5th of August 1397 near Brussels, Burgundian Netherlands (modern Belgium).  Becoming a renowned Franco-Flemish composer, he lived a long life and died on the 27th of November 1474 in Cambrai (modern France).  Being probably the illegitimate son of a priest and Marie Dufay, Guillaume and his mother moved to Cambrai early in his life, living in the house owned by a relative who was a canon at the Cathedral of Cambrai.  Given the family’s new connections with a religious institution, we know a lot about Dufay’s adolescence.

Dufay (left), with Gilles Binchois (a composer from the Burgundian School)
Florence Cathedral (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore)

The boy’s musical talents were quickly noticed by the cathedral authorities.  He was given an excellent education in music.  Between 1409 and 1412, Guillaume was listed as a choirboy in the cathedral and gifted his own copy of Villedieu’s Doctrinale Puerorum in 1411 in reward for his talents.  In 1414, at the age of 17, Guillaume was made a benefice as chaplain at St. Géry adjacent to Cambrai.  In the same year, the young talented man journeyed to the Council of Constance that ended the Western Schism, where he could have stayed until 1418 and then returned to Cambrai.  After working as a deacon at Cambrai Cathedral for a couple of years, Guillaume left for Italy, traveling first to Rimini and then to Pesaro, where he worked for the Malatesta family for 4 years and met Italian composers such as Hugo and Arnold de Lantins.

In Bologna, Dufay started serving Cardinal Louis Aleman, the papal legate, and by 1428 he was ordained priest.  Later he relocated to Rome to become a member of the prestigious Papal Choir, serving first Pope Martin V and then Pope Eugene IV.  By this time, Dufay was a celebrated composer in Europe.  In 1434, he worked as maistre de chappelle in Savoy ruled by Duke Amadeus VIII, but soon he was back in the papal service, this time in Florence, because Pope Eugene had been forced to leave Rome in 1434.  It was when Dufay met with Cosimo de’ Medici, known as the Elder, and Filippo Brunelleschi, for whom he composed the joyful motet ‘Nuper rosarum flores’, one of his most illustrious compositions, which was dedicated to and performed at the cathedral of Florence Cathedral.  While in Italy, he got acquainted with Niccolò III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, who was a renowned patron of the arts and music and for whom Dufay composed ballads.

The translation of the ‘Nuper rosarum flores’ motet from Latin shows the subtle soul of Dufay who was a true Christian and saw the beauty in churches, the Pope, and heavenly Virgin.

Recently garlands of roses

given by the Pope

– despite a terrible winter –

adorned this temple of magnificent structure

forever dedicated in a pious and holy fashion

to you, heavenly Virgin.

Today the vicar

of Jesus Christ and successor

of Peter, Eugenius,

has deigned to consecrate this same

vast temple with his sacred hands

and holy liquors.

Therefore, sweet parent

and daughter of your Son,

virgin, flower of virgins,

your devoted people of Florence

prays that anyone in agony

who will have prayed for anything

with a clean mind and body

will deserve to receive

by your prayer

and the merits of your Son in the flesh

the sweet gifts of his Lord and

forgiveness of sins.


Cantus firmus:

Magnificent is this place.

According to a papal letter of 1437, Dufay earned a degree in canon law.  His fame allowed him to start his job at the court of Philippe III the Good, Duke of Burgundy, after his return to Cambrai in 1440.  He combined his service to the duke with the functions he performed in the Cathedral of Cambrai, where he collaborated with Nicolas Grenon (a French composer of the early Renaissance) to create the revised liturgical musical collection for the cathedral’s services.  In 1444, the composer left to travel south again to Savoy and Italy, trying to find another employer there during the next 6 years.   Many musical compositions, including one of the four Lamentations composed on the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, his famous Masses and Chansons, as well as his correspondence with the young Lorenzo de’ Medici, survive from this period.  Yet, Dufay had to return to Cambrai, where he was appointed canon of the cathedral.

Used for Masses, Dufay’s “L’homme armé” (French: “The armed man”) gives an example what his secular music was like – a typical song from the time of the Late Middle Ages:

The armed man should be feared.

Everywhere it has been proclaimed

That each man shall arm himself

With a coat of iron mail.

The armed man should be feared.

L’homme armé in the Mellon Chansonnier, c. 1470

At home, Dufay reconnected with the Burgundian court and was welcomed by Philippe the Good.  For the brilliant Feast of the Pheasant, which was organized by Philippe in 1454 to initiate a Crusade to recapture Jerusalem, Dufay composed a melancholic Lamentation for the church in Constantinople.  During this time, he wrote numerous masses, motets, hymns, simple chant settings, and antiphons (all these are sacred music), as well as rondeaux, ballades, virelais, and other chanson types (secular music).  None of his music was specifically instrumental.  Most of his compositions were designed for liturgical use, while his secular music follows the formes fixes (rondeau, ballade, and virelai), prevailing in the field in the 14th and 15th centuries.

During his last years in Cambrai, Dufay met with many interesting people such as Busnois, Johannes Ockeghem, Johannes Tinctoris, and Loyset Compère.  All of them were a notable Franco-Flemish composers of the Renaissance Burgundian School.  Each of them contributed to the development of the polyphonic style of the next generation.  They also brought the light Italianate Renaissance style to France and Burgundy.  During this time, Dufay honed his style as a elegant and expressive music in which he composed for both secular and church purposes, and it influenced the works of later Franco-Flemish composers.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville

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