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Good gracious, Guillaume!

img  Tobias

What would you say if we told you that there’s a composer as prestigious as Beethoven, as melodically inventive as Mozart, as influential as Machaut, as progressive as Händl, as modern as any contemporary colleague even though he was born in the 14th Century and that you will probably never have heard of him? You’d probably call us clowns. But then we’d tell you about the life and times of Guillaume Dufay.

Every proper biography starts at the very beginning and so does this one. Young Guillaume was born about 1397 near the French city of Cambrai. Today, Cambrai is more known for its sad situation during the First World War, when British and German armies collided and merciless fights resulted in about 100.000 deaths. Visitors to the Cambrai-site are now greeted by the local mascots Martin and Martine, heroes of a legend which dates back to only a few decades before. Still, while they continue to proudly reside over the town’s inhabitants, Dufay’s name has been all but erased from the annals. Which is a strange feat, considering that, after an early education in France, Guillaume first moved to Konstanz, then on to Italy and had, approximately at the age of 25, already reached the status of one of the most renowned and appraised composers of his time. Still, it was another historic fact that truly cemented his position: “The outlines of his career begin to take on greater clarity by 1428 when he was appointed to the Papal Choir, where he remained until 1433. The extent of Dufay's compositional activity during this period, including both hymns and plainchant along with more dramatic isorhythmic motets such as Ecclesie militantis (also in 5 parts), is only now being fully appraised.”, according to Todd M. McComb, who has dedicated considerable time and effort into the study of Dufay’s life. The last fourty years are spent between Cambrai and Savoy and while he was a versatile man with many talents, it was composing which still took up most of his time and resulted in an eclectic and plentiful oeuvre, of which large parts have made it to the present day. Guillaume Dufay dies 1479 in Cambrai.

What makes his work so fascinating from a present point of view is the fact that many of his ideas and techniques so closely resemble those of today’s music. In his early years, he decided to found his pieces on simple plainchant (meaning: monophonic chant, such as the Gregorian one for example), but enriching it with harmonies. “Although relatively simple music, Dufay's gift for beautiful melody and clear harmonic direction is frequently evident”, McComb notes, while an enjoyable webpage created by “Laura and Jillian, Grade 8, Riverdale Junior Secondary School” has an easy translation for that: “He introduced harmonies which then brought out the melody in his works”. If you like, Enigma and other electronics projects are no different. His capacities didn’t end there, though. He was extremely active in the field of writing masses (or parts of them) as well as isorythmic motets. Just as a short note at the side for those struggling with the theoretical background: Motets were simply a form of polyphonic vocal music, which included lyrics and “isorhythmic” refers to the fact that, even though different voices could sing different words and differnet melodies at the same time (yes, those mediaeval folks sure had different ears!), they were using the same lenght of notes simultaneously, which made the music flow evenly and supple. Dufay later went on to combine various styles into a new one, dubbed “cantilena”, which was both more complex and even more fluent than his and his contemporaries’ previous efforts. And he made four-part arrangements common-place, an important novelty during his days.

We could speculate for hours over why Guillaume’s fame didn’t make it to the 21st Century. Was it the fact that he died a rich and accomplished man and therefore “missed out” both on a sensational, young and tragic death a la Mozart as well as the poor and forgotten death a la you-name-it (which belongs to any decent composer’s biography)? Or maybe because his stylistic diversity made it more difficult for later generations to categorise him into easy-to-understand boxes? It surely didn’t help that some of his compositions got lost and that experts are still quarelling over whether some of the most beautiful “anonymous” works of the era should actually be assigned to him. What we do know, however, is why Dufay’s name has won significance and recognition over the last few years. After all, this can be attributed to two factors: The Spanish Glossa Label and the Cantica Symphonia.

In 2004, this ensemble recorded “Quadrivium”, a collection of Dufay’s motets, for Glossa. The impact was enormous. Powered by a great production, an excellent and unusal cover, as well as highly informative liner notes, it became a natural sensation in a world, which usually needs to make sensations up. Contributing to its success was, besides the wonderful music, the fact that it played the card of mystery and mystique: The disc’s title refers to the interconnection of the four basic sciences Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. Dufay used the architectural faculties of the cathedreal of Florence to compose one of his pieces, thus allowing his music to be infiltrated by “precise factors”. For once, the exuberant vocabulary of the record company does not seem out of place: “On this recording, approached from the beginning as a great tribute to science, Dufay’s motets sound as they never did before, with the wise incorporation of instruments where the score is claiming them, with that perfection engraved with humanity that only the greatest can transmit, with a music and an interpretation that are far beyond the fashions of the moment. A full celebration of the eternal expressed through the ephemeral...”

The story is now set to continue, as Glossa and the Cantica Symphonia team up anew for “TEMPIO DELL'ONORE E DELLE VERTÙ”, this time celebrating the beauty of Dufay’s chansons. Collected here are several songs of the time between 1415 and 1435. This will be the second disc to what will amount to a trilogy of releases associated with the composer. It will have to be seen, whether the public will embrace this album the way it did with the first installment. But it needs no proof that if Guillaume Dufay should experience a Vivaldi-like comeback, that this brilliant trilogy will have been one of its harbingers.


Homepage: Glossa Records
Source: Guillaume Dufay at medieval.org
Source: Guillaume Dufay at classical.net
Source: Guillaume Dufay at the Renaissance Personalities Student Home Page


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