Dufay - I. Orientation

In most circles, the beginning of the musical Renaissance is positioned with some confidence, and various trends are drawn accordingly. The idea of Renaissance has its implications, and so those concerned with its music naturally present events as culminating a process, with all the value judgements which such an orientation implies. The issue, however, is that different circles place the Renaissance "boundary" at different points, and so while here we generally consider Dufay's generation as the first of the Renaissance, one also sees it allocated to the medieval era with the generation of Josquin marking the Renaissance, or moved farther into a Renaissance beginning slightly earlier with Dunstable. The third view is not widespread, but rests clearly on the structural use of the interval of the third in English descant style. The second view rests equally clearly on the role of both pervasive imitation and humanist-oriented syllabic text setting. The latter is perhaps most appealing to medievalists, since it allows them to claim Dufay & Ockeghem as their own, based at least on motivations which are medieval. Treating the third as a consonant interval & pervasive imitation are the two major technical shifts which define the era, so one might wonder why a boundary is ever placed with Dufay, let alone why it might be the most common choice. As his rather far-flung biography suggests, Dufay inaugurates a more broad-minded cosmopolitan character for Western music, and this orientation signifies him as a "Renaissance man" as clearly as any specific musical properties. Even if the English used what would become the newly dominant contrapuntal techniques earlier, they were not widespread, and the act of establishing them has given Dufay some precedence with regard to the new harmonies.

So the entire discussion requires some rather convoluted statements. Was Dufay a medieval or Renaissance composer? It is an artificial question, of course. We consider Dufay fully within our purview regardless. The Renaissance in music essentially involved a doubly ramified change, with Dufay representing one aspect and Josquin another. One is the focus and one is the lens in such a relationship, but which is which? It depends on which way one looks. Such a statement is not really so flippant, of course, because we can only look backward today. We look through the lens of Josquin to the focus of Dufay. And on to earlier eras? Well, we try. We see our own reflection much of the time. What we know about music before Dufay is spotty at best, and of course Dufay's own output is rather difficult to reconstruct with any sense of coherence. His late cantus firmus masses have been responsible for much of his modern reputation, yet by the time he was writing them, similar cycles by other mostly-anonymous contemporaries did exist, and what is more, much of Dufay's later output is believed lost. His remaining late works present an elegant synthesis, undoubtedly, but it is difficult to appraise them in contemporary terms. Dufay's reputation was made decades before.

Dufay was a brilliant melodist. If there is one defining characteristic in his oeuvre, this is it. It was fundamentally his talent for melody which allowed him to utilize and unite such seemingly disparate styles. The fact that we now know he wrote plainchant only underscores this trait. Did Dufay consider himself to be a landmark composer? One can really only guess. He could hardly have helped but feel some pride in his prestige, but he was also using the various forms and styles of his different regional predecessors, and did not compose anything which seems to be a self-conscious break. The growing appreciation for the Ars Subtilior has served to make Dufay's music seem more distinctive, although earlier histories still speak of continuous and uneventful change in the decades prior to his birth. The entire focus-lens analogy raises itself again here, as we cannot help but view another time through the succeeding events which served to condition our entire perspective on what it means to be such and such a thing. The only earlier composer whose surviving output even comes close to rivaling Dufay's in volume and breadth is Machaut, and Machaut was primarily a poet in the estimation of both himself and his contemporaries. There is correspondingly little to orient an appraisal of Dufay's work in terms other than those "leading to" the work of Ockeghem & Josquin.

Dufay's role in the Papal Choir is something which has become somewhat more clear in recent years. Although hymn harmonizations, which most of his output in this function seems to have been, do not impress us technically today, and they are relatively straightforward functional settings however they may be viewed, they seem to have been significant and decisive in shaping the direction of the later Vatican repertory. In the previous century, the Papacy had relocated to Avignon, and even been associated with some of the most complicated Ars Subtilior liturgical settings of the period. However, the Popes alternately decried this practice, and the entire sequence seems to have been considered a bad dream by the time they returned to Rome. Once in Italy, the Papal Choir was an itinerant group prior to and during Dufay's tenure, but shortly afterward it attained the status of having both a permanent abode & appointments. Dufay's compositions may have been the cornerstone of this early repertory, and certainly the fauxbourdon in which he mainly wrote is to be found in prominent Vatican pieces all the way to Allegri. Yet, aside from volume, this work seems almost as nothing in Dufay's output today. His output of songs is simply monumental, and his isorhythmic motets virtually define the tail of that genre. Each of these legacies is perhaps the most impressive of the period, and merits a more detailed discussion.

In many ways, Dufay is a "gateway" composer, whether in terms of looking backward and understanding the rather less detailed information available on earlier music or in terms of looking forward to the creation of a pan-European style which set the course for the High Renaissance. The size of his output necessitates considering other composers in terms of Dufay, rather than the other way around, and so it is difficult to place Dufay himself in perspective. Were his motivations "medieval" as claimed in the opening remarks? They were certainly steeped in music-as-science and lent themselves to intricate melody for its own sake. Dufay's "discovery" of what would form the basis of Renaissance cantus firmus style can be viewed as an experiment from the scientific perspective. While continuing to posit his genius, such a synthesis can be credited to osmosis as much as to any self-conscious act. Dufay gave the Renaissance in music an important footing, but it is doubtful that he saw himself as anything but a distinguished composer in the medieval tradition. Today it is the beauty of his music itself which attracts us more than any particular historical prescience it might exhibit.

Administrivia: It is time for a longer vacation. The next column will be in four weeks, and will not necessarily return immediately to Dufay.

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Todd M. McComb