"He is the most important ornament of our age", said Piero de'Medici, father of Lorenzo de'Medici, in 1467 of Guillaume Dufay. The high esteem in which this leading composer of the later Middle Ages was held is reflected in the fact that more of his music and more details of his life survive than for other contemporaries; the personality of a composer stands out from the anonymity of history. There is no certain evidence for the place and date of birth of Dufay, but it is known that in August 1409 Cambrai Cathedral admitted a new choirboy under the name Willemet, little William, who, in 1414, became clericus altaris, under the name Willerrnus du Fayt. Cambrai Cathedral counted at the time as one of the richest cathedrals of the region with good connections with Antwerp, Arras, Lille, Tournai and the seat of the Burgundian court in Brussels. Dufay's travels began at the same time as the Council of Constance, which was held from 1414 to 1418. It is not certain whether he was present at the Council, of which it is reported that over 1700 musicians attended from all countries, exchanging their knowledge, an important influence on composers of the time, but in his compositions the effects of this Council can certainly be seen.
Dufay's travels took him in 1420 to the Adriatic coast in the service of the Malatesta family, with whom he maintained long and friendly relations. There he wrote the ballade Resveillies vous for the wedding celebrations of Carlo Malatesta da Pesaro; Mon chier amy appears to have been written for the death of his friend Pandolfo Malatesta in the year 1427. From the same year dates the rondeau Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys, in which he bids a sad farewell of his native region of Laon and its much praised wines and women. Here are also allusions to the dark side of life, with which Dante Alighieri begins his Divina Commedia. From 1428 to 1433 he studied in Rome, where he composed Quel fronte signorille and La dolce vista. In the following years he must have met and become friendly with the composer Gilles Binchois, since this circumstance is recorded by contemporary poets (Martin le Franc, Le champion des dames). To his knowledge of the highly developed Italian literature of the time we owe the wonderful programmatic canzona Vergene be/la on a text by Francesco Petrarca. Numerous contacts with leading figures of his time, such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Pope Eugenius IV, for whom he composed some motets, Antonio Squarcialupi, Johannes Ockeghem, the Medici family and the House of Savoy, influenced and enriched his activity as a composer. The texts of his songs contain very personal aspects of the social contexts and political reactions of his time, with which he directly or indirectly came into contact.
In the over two hundred surviving compositions of Dufay can be observed a strong development of elements of personal style, which, nevertheless, point to the common musical changes of the fifteenth century. The word �music� is found in two entirely different meanings. One of these is the meaning of monophonic music, implied in many representations of musicians, documents and eye-witness accounts. The greater part of the music in daily use was either improvised or semi-improvised and was for the most part monophonic, accompanied only by a drone bass or parallel counterpoint. It is known, for example, that between 1436 and 1456 two hurdy-gurdy players were permanently employed at the Burgundian court and were there held in high esteem. The music most performed in church was also monophonic, although it was partly performed without instruments, since these were forbidden. Complex polyphony was generally composed for special occasions and not for daily liturgical use. Dufay, like almost all the musicians of his time, was employed for most of his life as a church musician, especially as a singer. Monophony, therefore, was the first step in his musical formation. Traces of this tonal daily repertoire are found, for example, in ray mis man cuer and in the dance-like Ce jour de l� an.
The second meaning of the word 'music' is in the connection with universal studies. With Arithmetic, Astronomy and Geometry, Music belongs as the fourth element of the so-called Quadrivium. This study is concerned with the relationship between intervals, the mathematical and logical connection of one note with another. The fundamental complexity of sounds and mixtures of sounds stands in direct relationship with the complexity of the universe. Dufay refined this music in the service of the Church, among other things during his five-year employment in the papal chapel in Rome. The greater part of his works, Masses, liturgical motets and hymns, were written for special church occasions, as, for example, for the Council of Basle in 1438 and 1439, in which he represented the Cathedral of Cambrai.
A musician in the employment of the Church did not depend on the sale of his music. It is, therefore, remarkable that Dufay's by-products, his secular songs, had such encouragement. This appears, if these are seen as the composer's own challenge to himself, as a mastering of the problem of the second 'music' by experiment. Resvellies vous contains a quantity of musical material from the Mass Sine nomine, compressed into a complex little composition, for the performance of which, it is reported, Dufay had to be present for the musicians to be able to play it. The isorhythmic polyphony was certainly composed for special occasions and for special musicians (as, for example, Ce jour de I'an for New Year's Day). This is reflected in the possible notations employed at the beginning of the fifteenth century, which, again, were not for daily use.
Polyphony appears as dialogue between tenor, cantus and contratenor, terms that signify different functions rather than range of voice. The tenor controls the harmonic movement and forms with the freer cantus a perfect contrapuntal basis, marked by imitation and answering phrases (Belle, que vous ay je mesfait, Ce jour de I'an), often also in canon (Puisque vous estez campieur, Par droit je puis in Cantus 1 and 2). The contratenor is a complementary part, mostly set between the other two parts, but often taking up the tenor melody, which lends colour and rhythmic life to the whole dialogue with a particular diction. Its often unmelodic and rhythmically complex leaps, as well as the wide range, do not exclude instrumental performance (Par droit, La dolce vista). That the dialogue does not always run smoothly will be evident from the early isorhythmic works (Belle, que vous ay, Resvelons nous, with canon in tenor and contratenor). In Dannes I'assault, where a lady is compared to a fortress that will be taken in battle, major and minor thirds are placed near to one another. In his late Helas mon dueil too, where he achieves the greatest power of expression with a simple formal gesture, Dufay experiments with chromaticism, yet he finds in his late compositions a simpler melody which is quietly embedded in a harmonic setting (Se Iafaceay pale, He/as man dueil, Bon jour, bon mois)
The way from objective spiritual experiment to heartfelt individual simplicity in the course of the fifteenth century is seen also in the change of notation, which largely adopted simplified forms, as we know them today. In this way the composer was able to make his music accessible to a greater number of musicians with a more explicit method of performance.
In 1439 Dufay returned finally to Cambrai and ended his years of travel. Certainly he remains in most of his songs true to his French mother-tongue, which opens the way to the great importance of French also in Northern Italy, yet the differing circumstances of his life allow him always to find new ways of textual and musical expression, a widening of his expressive power.
Adieu ces bans vins stands as a phenomenon at the beginning of the so-called Franco- Flemish School, in which all great artists often undertook difficult journeys to the countries of the South, to seek there the stimulus of the cultural achievements of humanism. This finds further expression in a large number of songs of farewell, among which Heinrich Isaak's Innsbruck, ich muβ dich lassen may be considered the best known. They are at the same time a departure from the security of tradition and local belonging, which leads to a creative life of the individual in the exchange between himself and the world.
Riccardo Delfino / Michael Posch
(English version by Keith Anderson)
Reviews...it would be pleasant indeed to welcome this new release unreservedly. I should say straightaway that the members of Ensemble Unicorn play with conviction and style, and with a real flair for their instruments. - Gramophone, September 1996