Chapter 5

Chapter 5: England, France, and Burgundy in the Fifteenth Century

Composer Biographies

Guillaume Du Fay

Born: August 5, 1397, Cambrai, France

Died: November 27, 1474, Cambrai, France

French composer. Considered the leading composer of the early Renaissance.

The fifteenth century saw the rise of a new musical style, one in which harmonies began to use full triads and the setting of the text became an important concern to composers. Guillaume Du Fay is one of the most important figures in this transition from the medieval style to the Renaissance style, which took place mainly among composers associated with the rich court of Burgundy. For this reason, Du Fay and his contemporaries are usually referred to as the "Burgundian school."

Guillaume Du Fay probably received his early musical training in the cathedral choir at Cambrai, in northern France. But his career took a decidedly international turn early on. By the age of twenty-five, he had gone to Italy. During his years there, he worked for courts in Pesaro and Ferrara and sang in the Papal choir in Rome. During that time, he also earned a degree in canon law, probably at the University of Bologna. He spent the latter part of his life at the cathedral in Cambrai. Du Fay wrote both sacred and secular music; he is perhaps best known for his cantus firmus masses. Before he died, he composed a Requiem Mass (now lost) to be sung at his funeral and asked that four of the best singers from the cathedral sing his motet Ave regina caelorum (Hail, Queen of Heaven) to him on his deathbed.

Du Fay's music set the tone for the Renaissance (one scholar credits him with defining the "central style" of the period). His triad-based harmonies and arching melodies create a pleasant balance of melody and harmony. He changed the overall sound of sacred music with his regular use of four-voice textures. At the same time, we can still find the medieval concern with structure and isorhythm in his sacred music, especially in his cantus firmus masses.


  • Sacred works, including at least 7 complete mass settings, numerous mass movements and pairs of movements, 30 motets, and 60 other sacred works (hymns, etc.)
  • Secular works, including more than 50 rondeaux, 10 ballades, 4 virelais, 15 other works.

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Musical Examples

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