let us try to establish how the composer’s name should be
spelt. It always used to be Dunstable, but Margaret Bent -
credited for her help on this CD - in her 1981 ‘Oxford Studies
of Composers’ book became the first scholar to spell it Dunstaple.
The Hilliard ensemble on their 1984 EMI recording of nine
motets called him Dunstable, but the Orlando Consort for their
Metronome CD of his music (Met CD 1009) reverted to Dunstaple
which appears to be the way he is found in manuscripts, so
you ‘Pays ya money and ya takes ya choice’. Even the composer’s
date of birth is not really known but we do know that he died
on Christmas Eve 1453 probably in his early 60s.
of Dunstable's music are not that common. Apart from those
mentioned I can remember an American LP by the New York Pro
Musica back in the 1960s and Bruno Turner recorded several
works in the early 1970s with Pro Musica Antiqua. This is
especially unfortunate as, for a time in the early 15th
Century, England led the musical world with a very
talented group of musicians and composers some of whose names
can be seen in the ‘Old Hall Manuscript’. The ‘fountain head’
of these men was John Dunstable.
a time in France when extreme rhythmic complexity, new notational
methods, and experimental harmony had dominated the musical
landscape of the late 14th Century, Dunstable
must have seemed breath of fresh air with clear, elegant lines
and the strong use of what we now call the major scale - very
sweet and delicate. He influenced Guillaume Dufay, Gilles
Binchois and ultimately Josquin. It’s interesting that the
change into musical clarity and light came at a time when
developing its own indigenous style of architecture which
we now call the ‘Perpendicular’ period - all light, space
and simple beauty as opposed to elaboration and intellectual
complexity. That’s not to say that Dunstable’s music is not
sometimes complex, especially the isorythmic motets but this
complexity is not an end in itself. It allows certain aspects
of the text to be focused on more clearly. It’s interesting
to remember that Dunstable is almost an exact contemporary
of Brunelleschi who designed the copula of Florence’s Duomo, and is often called ‘The
first Renaissance Artist’. Dunstable was a polymath himself
being also a mathematician and astronomer.
have waxed lyrical before about Tonus Peregrinus; in fact
in September this year (2005) about their Notre-Dame polyphony
disc. I also much enjoyed their 2004 release of the ‘Missa
Tournai’- therefore my expectations were high. I must admit
at this stage that I read two reviews of the disc before my
own review copy arrived. One in Gramophone magazine by Fabrice
Fitch I will quote “… Suffice it to say that Antony Pitts’
choice of tempo .... results in very slow speeds in duple
sections”. Tempo is of course a question of helping to keep
the listeners’ attention which I feel Tonus Peregrinus certainly
does. Nevertheless I researched this point and my observations
do not consistently help me to form the same impression. For
example on straight timings of the few pieces I could make
comparison with, the Orlando Consort in ‘Veni Sancti Spiritus-Veni
Creator’ are 48 seconds faster. However recently discovered
and curiously edited canonic ‘Gloria’ works out the same for
both groups. Compared with the Hilliard Ensemble Tonus Peregrinus
are identical in ‘Quam pulcra es’ but an extraordinary one
and a quarter minutes slower in the ‘Da gaudiorum’ Credo movement.
as one who is especially sensitive to and aware of speed in
early music I would warn readers not to be put off by Fitch’s
comments. However I do agree with him as far as vocal blend
and balance are concerned. I have not noticed this with the
group before and it may be caused by the rather reverberant
acoustic of Chancelade Abbey - why and how did they come to
chose this Abbey? - but the bass Francis Brett is often simply
too loud. His vibrato is at odds with the blanched whiteness
of the female voices who seem rather recessed in the overall
there is the question of accidentals or Musica ficta. Now
this is a dangerous area and I don’t want any hate mail but
surely Anthony Pitts has gone overboard in ‘Quam pulcra es”.
This is perhaps Dunstable’s ‘greatest hit’ and has been often
recorded. Here it lacks any semblance of what we now call
tonality. It appeals to wobble too much between modes.
returning to the Hilliard’s recording I was refreshed by its
sheer beauty of delivery. Having said all of that, I must
add that it is also refreshing to hear Tonus Peregrinus perform
this music with ‘guts’. The singers in this new release really
‘go for it’ yet they do not forget for one moment to add sensitive
and appropriate dynamics - a really strong forte and
a hushed piano.
repertoire chosen for this CD, some of which has not been
recorded before - although that is not confirmed on the disc
- is quite tough and somewhat ascetic.
disc is set out unusually: beginning with ‘Quam pulcra es’.
Then we have joined mass movements, a rather dull Kyrie -
possibly an early work - and a very fine Gloria and Credo,
all performed tutti. To give contrast, and this is a feature
I really appreciate, the three-part Gloria and Credo which
follow based on the ‘Jesu Christi Fili Dei’ are performed
by lower voices who manfully negotiate the incredibly bizarre
harmonies. I found myself asking: is this really by Dunstable.
I have looked at the score and can vouch for its authenticity.
The following Sanctus is given to the women’s voices which
make a wonderfully refreshing change but the tessitura seems
almost to be too high.
Credo and Sanctus from the ‘Da Gaudiorum premia’ mass and
the ensuing unrelated Agnus Dei are divided between the voices
and end with the full ensemble. There follow the ‘Veni Sancte’
and then the canonic Gloria which ends the disc with quite
a din. It is set as a double canon with a conjectured ‘pes’-
a speculative canon given to the lower voices.
sum up. The booklet which is adorned with a smiling angel
painted by Sassetta has handy notes on the pieces by Anthony
Pitts and an explanation of his approach. I would recommend
the disc to anyone interested in this repertoire. Snap it
up ‘warts and all’. There are things which will annoy and
there are moments to savour. The chosen pieces are fascinating
and the performances well worth hearing even if they do not
quite square with the Dunstable we have until now been led
to believe we knew.