|Founder: Len Mullenger|
Guillaume DUFAY (c.1399-1474)
SACRED MUSIC FROM BOLOGNA - 915
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Despite the fact that Dufay left behind something approaching 100 secular songs, assuming the attributions are correct (all recorded by the Medieval Ensemble of London on L’Oiseau Lyre 452 557-2) he should be seen first and foremost as a church musician. His music for the Mass fills up six volumes of the complete edition. This CD attempts to look at Dufay from the point of view of just one (vast) manuscript, known rather unromantically as Q15 and compiled over something like a fifteen-year period, in Bologna.
Dufay's church career can be laid out simply. In 1420 he worked in Paris as a post-student as it were. In 1427 he left his much-favoured homeland (see the chanson ‘Adieu ces bon vins de Lonnoys’- Gothic Voices Hyperion CDA66144) for Bologna. He stayed for only two years leaving for Léon Cathedral in 1429. He must have made an impression in Bologna as his early works are mostly found there alongside others written after he had left the city.
In 1434 he worked at the Savoy Chapel and from 1436 at Cambrai Cathedral (sadly destroyed in 1789) mostly for the rest of his life. He was not only a singer and composer but also a gifted administrator.
Four of these pieces ‘Vasilissa, ergo gaude’, ‘O gemma, lux’ ‘O, sancte Sebastiane’, and ‘Supremum est mortalibus’ are isorhythmic motets (a complex technique which I will not go into now) and can, unusually, be fairly precisely dated.
The first may well be Dufay’s earliest known composition. It is short, lively and definitely young man’s music being dated to 1420. ‘O Sancte Sebastiane’ was probably composed during a plague epidemic c.1424. ‘O gemma lux’ is a little more difficult to pin down but c.1434 is possible. ‘Supremum est mortalibus’ is dated by Paul van Neval on his CD of the isorhythmic motets (Harmonia Mundi 901700) to 1433. These then are early works. David Fallows in the book on Dufay (The Master Musicians, Dent, revised 1987) gives slightly different dates. But if the manuscript was compiled say from between c.1422-1437 all of these works would fit, particularly as Van Neval dates the second one as late as 1437.
Many other composers are represented in the manuscript but Dufay stands out in quantity and quality.
The ‘Clerk’s Group’ consist on this CD of four men and two women with no sopranos; they perform these motets, indeed the entire CD, a capella. Van Neval opts for some instrumental participation. Both approaches work and are impressive in their own ways. Unaccompanied ‘Vasilissa ergo’ sounds bright and young and joyous. With sackbuts playing the men’s parts it has nobility and a sense of occasion.
The rest of this CD is worth investigation and is always beautifully done. In fact I think that in the three discs ‘The Clerk’s Group’ have made for Signum they are at their most consistently good. (I could heartily recommend their disc of Machaut isorhythmic motets on Signum D011) The balance of light and dark in this music is important. A light touch in the top part as the lyrical lines weave and echo across the text and a creamy dark quality to the sustained lines in the tenors and basses. These are carried off with character and understanding.
At the top of this review I mention paired Mass movements. The 1420s and 1430s were not quite yet a time when composers produced complete Mass cycles, although Machaut had done just that in the 1360s. Generally a Gloria and Credo would go together for example each with a similar head motif or opening melody or harmonic pattern. The booklet notes by Edward Wickham, which are too general, and comment only on some of the pieces do not mention this. Even a moment’s hearing of the opening of these movements will quickly give the listener an understanding of this technique. The Sanctus and Agnus are similarly linked.
Of the other works ‘Inclita stella maris’ is an oddity. Its lower parts are untexted and apparently one is not even necessary, some groups would perform them instrumentally. Wickham has them sung to an unobtrusive vowel sound - a technique also employed by Gothic Voices. The text is passed between to top two lines in mensural canon, the effect of which is that neither part has the same rhythm but both have the same melody. The ‘Gloria Spiritus et alme’ is a Pentecostal troped text. The music seems to stretch back to an earlier generation and to me does not seem to sound like Dufay. There is also another work to ‘St.Sebastiane’ that is the free and flowing three-part motet ‘O beate Sebastiane’, which seems to be more like a song than a motet.
The variety in the work of any great composer is always a surprise. This CD brings us such surprises. If you have recordings of Dufay’s late, great Masses (for example ‘Ecce ancilla Domini’ on Virgin Veritas with the Ensemble Gilles Binchois 5 45050 2) then these young motets will appear to lack sobriety and decorum. But personally I prefer them to the more inward looking late Masses. On this CD they are given every chance to be appreciated as they were written on the original page.
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