Chapter 5: England, France, and Burgundy in the Fifteenth Century
Prelude. (CHWM 95–97)
English music made important contributions to the development of an international style in the first half of the fifteenth century. The influence of English style on Continental composers was celebrated around 1440 in a poem that praised the contenance angloise (English quality) of "lively consonance." The new, international style, which blended French, Italian, and English traits, was nurtured especially by composers from the area ruled by the dukes of Burgundy, and most of the leading composers of the late fifteenth century came from this area. Burgundian musicians traveled with their patrons and moved to new posts in other regions, and their interactions with musicians from all over Europe aided the development of an international style.
I. English Music and Its Influence (CHWM 97–99, NAWM 23 and 32)
English music frequently used thirds and sixths, often in parallel motion, as illustrated in the rota Sumer is icumen in and the carol Alleuia: A new‘ work. Music: NAWM 23 and 32
John Dunstable (ca. 1390–1453) was the leading English composer in the first half of the fifteenth century, and he wrote in all the prevailing genres and styles of polyphony.
- Dunstable’s motets
In some of his motets and masses, Dunstable continued to use isorhythm. His three-voice sacred works feature style traits common to music of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Music: NAWM 33
- Redefining the motet
In the fifteenth century, the term motet was eventually applied to any polyphonic composition on a Latin text other than the Mass Ordinary. Music: NAWM 33
II. Music in Burgundian Lands (CHWM 100–107, NAWM 34–37)
The main polyphonic genres in the mid-fifteenth century were secular chansons with French texts, motets, Magnificats, and settings of the Mass Ordinary.
Most secular chansons by Burgundian composers were for three voices, with the main melody usually in the cantus and with larger ranges for each voice than in the previous century. The foremost composers of the Burgundian style were Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397–1474) and Gilles de Bins, known as Binchois (ca. 1400–1460).
Binchois spent most of his career at the Burgundian court chapel.
- Binchois’s chansons
Binchois was best known for his chansons. His polyphonic chanson De plus en plus uses consonant harmonies, a treble-dominated style, varied rhythms, and sixth-to-octave cadences. Music: NAWM 34
The traditional sixth-to-octave cadence between tenor and cantus was harmonized with a contratenor that leapt up an octave to sound the fifth above the tenor, creating a sound like a V–I cadence.
- Guillaume Du Fay
Du Fay was the most famous composer of his time, and his music well represents the international style of the mid-fifteenth century.
Du Fay’s ballade Resvellies vous (1423) blends French and Italian characteristics. A later chanson, Se la face ay pale (1430s), illustrates the strong influence of English music. Music: NAWM 35–37a
Many of Du Fay’s motets were written in three voices with a texture resembling the chanson.
In his hymn Christe, redemptor omnium, Du Fay paraphrased the chant in the treble part and used a technique called fauxbourdon, which was inspired by music from England. Music: NAWM 36
- Isorhythmic motets
Du Fay and his contemporaries continued to write isorhythmic motets for ceremonial events.
In the fifteenth century, it became standard practice for composers to set the Mass Ordinary texts as a coherent whole, thus creating a polyphonic mass cycle.
Biography: Guillaume Du Fay
Du Fay was born near Brussels and studied at the Cambrai cathedral school. He served powerful and rich patrons in major cities in Italy and Savoy, then went back to Cambrai, returned to Savoy in the 1450s, and finished his career in Cambrai, making him a truly international composer.
- Cyclic masses
Composers in the fifteenth century used a variety of means to link the separate sections of a mass to one another. One technique was to use the same general style for all five movements.
- Motto mass
A motto mass uses the same head motive, or motto, to begin each movement.
- Cantus firmus or tenor mass
Another way to link movements was to write a cantus firmus mass, or tenor mass, in which each movement is constructed around the same borrowed melody (the cantus firmus, normally placed in the tenor.)
- Four-voice texture
Four-voice texture became standard in cantus firmus masses. Below the tenor was a contratenor bassus (low contratenor), or bassus, to provide a harmonic foundation; above it was the contratenor altus, or altus. The top part was called the cantus, discantus, or superius. The cantus firmus could be taken from a chant, a secular song, or the tenor of a polyphonic chanson. A cantus firmus mass is named after the source of its borrowed melody.
In Context: The Feast of the Oath of the Pheasant
Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, assembled hundreds of nobles for a banquet called the Feast of the Oath of the Pheasant in Lille on June 17, 1454. It was a lavish affair with a religious meaning, showcasing food, music, dance, and characters in costume, all meant to show support for the Eastern church after the fall of Constantinople.
- Compositional techniques
Obscuring the cantus firmus by giving it a different rhythm or by placing it in an inner voice did not diminish its power to unify the mass.
- Missa Se la face ay pale
Du Fay’s Missa Se la face ay pale is a cantus firmus mass, whose tenor is taken from Du Fay’s ballade Se la face ay pale. Other voices from the ballade are borrowed from in this mass as well. Music: NAWM 37
- Layered texture in Du Fay’s masses
In Missa Se la face ay pale and other Du Fay masses, the top two voices maintain smooth contours and occasionally exchange motives, while the contratenor bassus is more angular and provides a harmonic foundation.
- Consonance and dissonance in Du Fay’s masses
Du Fay’s style features a careful control of consonance and dissonance.