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CD118   Music of Guillaume Dufay



Music of Guillaume Dufay

The Choir of The Church of the Advent
Edith Ho, Director of Music
Mark Dwyer, Associate Conductor

  • Notes by Noël Bisson
  • Complete texts and translations
  • 61'04" total playing time

CD118      $15.95

Purchase from Canticle Distributing


     Missa Se la face ay pale      Missa Ecce ancilla Domini
1. Kyrie 7. Kyrie
2. Gloria 8. Gloria
3. Credo 9. Credo
4. Sanctus & Benedictus 10. Sanctus & Benedictus
5. Agnus Dei 11. Agnus Dei
6. Magnificat quinti toni  

Listen Listen:

Agnus I from Missa Ecce ancilla Domini


At this time...the possibilities of our music have been so marvelously
increased that there appears to be a new art.

So wrote Johannes Tinctoris at the start of his influential treatise on music theory, Proportionales musices (c. 1476). Tinctoris documented a profound change in polyphonic writing that took place early in the fifteenth century. He described the new polyphony as being infused with a sweetness and imagination that all earlier music lacked.

Even today, when most of us are less accustomed to the intricacies of Renaissance polyphony, this change in musical style between fourteenth- and fifteenth-century counterpoint is clear. Whereas the stark sound of the intervals of the perfect fourth and fifth dominated earlier contrapuntal writing, composers working in the early fifteenth century began to soften their counterpoint with thirds and sixths. In addtion, these composers expanded voice ranges, and four-part writing with a low bass voice became the norm. Contrapuntal procedures became more complicated as composers wrote increasingly longer pieces.

Tinctoris attributes the new sound to the work of a few composers and their immediate successors. He states that the originators of the new style were English but names Guillaume Dufay as one of the first and most important in defining this new compositional style on the Continent. Tinctoris is not the only writer to have documented Dufay's importance to music history. At the time of his death, Dufay was a wealthy and famous man, known throughout Italy, France, and the Low Countries for his remarkable compositions. His contemporaries believed him to be the greatest composer of their generation.

Dufay's compositional legacy is enormous, in part because his mastery lay in both secular and sacred music. Younger composers of the fifteenth century, including Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez, were profoundly influenced by his genius. Dufay spent most of his career in some way connected to Cambrai Cathedral (in modern-day southwest Belgium), although at times during his life he also sang in the papal chapal in Rome and worked at the court of Savoy (in modern-day northwest Italy). This recording contains two of his greatest Masses, one from the middle of his career and one from the end, as well as a Magnificat.

The most demanding compositional genre at this time was the polyphonic cyclic Mass, and by the end of the fifteenth century it had become the genre in which composers displayed their most serious thought. The importance of cyclic Mass settings was established in large part through Dufay's work. He is among the earliest composers to whom we can securely attribute Mass settings.

The Missa "Se la face ay pale" is one of the earliest Masses based on a cantus firmus. A cantus firmus is a pre-existing melody (a single line of a polyphonic piece, or a plainchant melody) that functions as a foundation upon which the composer then constructs the other voices of the composition. In this case Dufay uses a secular cantus firmus, the tenor of his song Se la face ay pale, which he is thought to have written for a wedding in Savoy in 1434. The Mass dates from the 1450s and also seems to have some connection with a wedding. At some points in the Mass the tenor line, which carries the cantus firmus, moves two and three times as slowly as it does in the song, but it retains the same relative note values as in the song. Although an audible connection between the Mass and the earlier song is not so obvious to most of us today, it would have been clear to contemporary listeners, thus making the Mass particularly suitable for a wedding. The Mass is scored for four voices; in a few places, however, Dufay uses only three voices and drops the cantus firmus, and these passages are sung by a smaller ensemble on this recording.

The Missa "Ecce ancilla Domini" is thought to be a late work, possibly from around 1463 when it was copied into two manuscripts from Cambrai Cathedral. It bears some similarity to Johannes Ockeghem's Mass of the same name. Ockeghem visited Dufay in 1462 and 1464, and scholars believe Dufay's Mass probably dates from this period and was influenced by Ockeghem's piece. The Mass was likely performed on a particular day in the Advent season, the Wednesday of the Ember days, when the Annunciation dialogue between the Angel Gabriel and Mary was read.

Dufay's Missa "Ecce ancilla Domini" is based on two different cantus firmi: Ecce ancilla Domini and Beata es Maria. Both chants are antiphons associated with the Annunciation. The cantus firmi appear in the tenor voice and are sung with their original antiphon texts. In each movement the cantus firmi are heard once, Beata es Maria always following Ecce ancilla Domini, except in the Credo where Ecce ancilla Domini appears for a second time at the end of the movement. The counterpoint in Ecce ancilla is much lighter than in Se la face ay pale, as is the texture; Dufay relies much more on the duo textures here (sung by a smaller ensemble on this recording) and rarely uses trios. The contrast between the duet sections and the full four-voice sonority of the rest of the Mass is striking, and four-voice textures tend to highlight the most important points of the text. The movements are more compact than in Se la face, and the musical material of the second Hosanna appears later as the third Agnus Dei. Each movement begins with the same opening gesture set as a duet between the soprano and alto voices (and as a trio with added bass in the Sanctus), making this work a so-called "motto" Mass because a similar "motto" opens each movement.

Little is known about the dates of Dufay's Magnificat settings and several are of doubtful attribution. The Magnficat quinti toni, however, is securely attributed to Dufay. It follows a standard structure of Magnificat settings of this period, with polyphonic verses alternating with plainsong. For each of the polyphonic verses, Dufay uses the same musical material, thus providing us with a way to examine his technique of setting text. The polyphony is in three parts throughout and uses a simple fauxbourdon texture (parallel first-inversion chords).

It is rare to hear Dufay's music today and rarer still to hear an entire program of Dufay. But hearing this music gives us a new understanding of the works of those Renaissance composers with whom most of us are more familiar, for, with Dufay, we find many of the techniques that later composers would use. Even more importantly, however, we find extraordinary music of breath-taking intricacy that is full of inspiration and depth. Even through the most stunningly complicated contrapuntal passages Dufay's music remains clear and persuasive. Tinctoris's praise for Dufay was richly deserved.

Noël Bisson

The Advent Choir on ARSIS recordings: