In the days when Jan Van Eyck and his ilk were painting lush portraits and still lifes in the Netherlands, the same patrons who supported visual arts also poured their gold into the field of music. Anchoring this early edge of the Renaissance was the composer Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397-1474), leader of the style musicologists refer to as the Burgundian School. A number of recent recordings celebrate his compositions.
You’ll sometimes find his name spelled Du Fay, but the one-word version is favored by early-music ensembles and the recording industry. He spent most of his career in the French town of Cambrai, although he accepted many commissions in Italy and the Netherlands, working for a variety of dukes.
Dufay’s music is important for a host of reasons. For one thing, he was equally prolific in sacred and secular music. Also, both types of his music are equally well preserved, indicating how much his works were valued in his own day and giving us a wide window into the world of 15th-century music.
Although their album Flos florum originally came out in 2004, the Lyon-based Ensemble Musica Nova has just rereleased this collection of Dufay’s sacred music on the Alpha label. The group has been around since 2000, and director Lucien Kandel has a firm understanding of how to bring old music to life.
The ensemble’s sound is calm and clear, as demonstrated in their recording of “Urbs beata Jerusalem” (Blessed City Jerusalem). This work is a motet, meaning a polyphonic piece that sets a liturgical text broken up into partes (plural of pars, basically an early version of the concept of movements in longer works). Each pars opens with Gregorian chant followed by a four-voice a cappella setting inspired by those chant phrases.
You can hear the entire album of motets and shorter sacred works here:
The ensemble Jerycho has a much different take on Dufay’s sacred music with their new recording of the Magnificat sexti toni. The Magnificat is one of the oldest surviving liturgical Latin texts; “sexti toni” (“of the sixth mode”) describes the scale Dufay has used as the basis for his composition.
Jerycho is a Polish ensemble directed by B. Izbicki. It is not your typical European or American early-music group. Their style of vocalization is clearly influenced by Eastern Orthodox church singing, using a slight swoop of the voice from below the pitch and other microtonal decorations. It’s not surprising that they’ve worked with Marcel Pérès, innovative and controversial leader of Ensemble Organum and longtime proponent of the influence of Byzantium style on Gregorian chant.
Until you’re used to it, Jerycho’s tuning makes for a jarring change from the mathematically perfect temperance of better-known touring groups. Frankly, it sounds out of tune. But if you let the slow, a cappella sound wash over you for a while, you have the distinct sense of being amid a crowd of medieval monks who have far loftier things to worry about than scholarly agreement on pitch frequency in historical performance practice.
You can hear the Magnificat on Spotify:
In his own day, Dufay was probably more famous for his secular songs, or chansons. When it comes to 15th-century secular vocal music, the Orlando Consort has long been the go-to source for high-quality recordings. They maintain that tradition in their newest Dufay offering for Hyperion, Dufay: Lament for Constantinople and Other Songs.
In surviving copies of Dufay’s works (all hand-written, since movable type for music did not yet exist and other printing methods were awkward and inaccurate), the text for his French-language secular songs is only assigned to the highest of the three voices. This has led some musicologists to believe that the lower parts were played on instruments. The Orlando Consort doesn’t seem to buy that theory; they add text to the lower parts as well, and the results are always convincing.
By listening to Hyperion’s mini-sampler from the album (sorry – there are no complete tracks available free), you can get a good sense both of Dufay’s various methods of writing secular polyphony and of the Orlando Consort’s approach to distributing lyrics. In “Je me complains piteusement” (I Moan Piteously), for example, the three voices seem equal and in a similar range. But in “Malheureulx cueur” (Unhappy heart), the top voice is separated in range from the others and has a more melodious style, which was one of Dufay’s innovations.
Quite the opposite of the Orlando Consort, the equally venerable ensemble Gothic Voices includes instruments all over the place in their new Dufay Spectacle on Linn Records.
British early music guru Christopher Page founded this group over 30 years ago, focusing on tuning and vocal production to create a purity of sound unmatched in the industry. You can hear this in samples of all the tracks on the Linn website; I recommend you start with the motet “Vassilisa, ergo gaude / Concupivit rex decorum” (it has two titles because two different texts are sung simultaneously, a common practice in the late 14th and early 15th centuries).
Dufay set a chanson called “Se la fatze ay pale” (“If the face is pale,” more commonly spelled “Se la face ay pale”) for three voices, and here it’s played only on instruments, with appealing delicacy.
That track is the perfect segue to our last recording, by the French group Diabolus in Musica singing Dufay’s Missa Se la face ay pale on Alpha Music.
Perhaps Dufay’s most influential practice was his use of his own secular French-language songs as the basis of his sacred music. He would first set the song for three voices. Next, he would take one, two, or all three of the vocal parts as musical material, set aside the French lyrics, and reuse his own music with the words of the Catholic Mass.
Every Mass movement used the secular source material, inspiring scholars to refer to such Masses as “cyclic” because of the interconnection of their movements. The Masses are always called by the Latin “Missa” plus the title of the source. One such example is the Mass that Dufay composed using his own song, “Se la face ay pale.” (This is the usual spelling, as opposed to the “fatze” spelling by Gothic Voices, above.)
In the Kyrie section, you’ll notice a sweetness and richness of sonority, which Dufay borrowed from English composers in a style known as fauxbourdon. Diabolus in Musica’s meditative sound might not be as pure as that of Gothic Voices, but director Antoine Guerber digs satisfyingly into the contrasting phrases and cadential moments.
If you compare the beginning of that Kyrie with that of the Gloria section, you’ll see what I mean about every movement using the same musical material. Must have been a nice shortcut for a composer (and Dufay inspired many others after him to use this technique). But when the music turns out this gloriously, what does it matter?