In 15th century, except for educational system, all of the key elements that were to define humanism were controlled. During the early 15th century, English music became very important. It inspired the development of an international style. Composers who were living in the area ruled by dukes of Burgundy had the greatest influence on this style which was a blend of French, Italian and English traits. The travels of Burgundian musicians to all over Europe aided the development of this international style.
One of the leading English composers of the time was John Dunstable (ca. 1390-1453), who was in service of duke of Bedford. He influenced the transition between late medieval and early Renaissance music. Dunstable covered all genres and styles of polyphony in his compositions. Also, he continued to use isorhythm in some of his motets and masses. Regardless of his flowing and gently asymmetrical rhythms, his influence on European music was more about his harmonies which were based on parallel 3rds and 6ths that were frequently used in English music. About 60 works is left from him, including mass sections, motets and secular songs. They are mostly in three parts.
The term motet was redefined in 15th century. It was eventually applied to any polyphonic composition on a Latin text other than the Mass Ordinary.
The polyphonic genre of mid-fifteenth century was based on secular chansons with French texts, motets, magnificates and setting of the Mass Ordinary.
Most secular chansons were for three voices and the main melody was generally given to the cantus. Also, a larger range was used for each voice compare to the previous centuries. Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474) and Gilles de Bins known as Binchois (ca. 1400-1460) were the notable Burgundian style composers.
Guillaume Du Fay was born near Brussels and studied at the Cambrai cathedral school. He served powerful and rich patrons in major cities in Italy and Savoy, and then went back to Cambrai. Du Fay was the most famous composer of his time, and his music well represents the international style of the mid-fifteenth century. The subject of Du Fay’s chansons, generally deal with subjects such as springtime, love and melancholy. Mostly, the poetic-musical forms are used such as, Ballade, rondeau, virelai, and some are written in freer form. Furthermore, Du Fay’s ballade Resvellies vous (1423) blends French and Italian characteristics. A later chanson, Se la face ay pale (1430s), illustrates the strong influence of English music. Martin le Franc argues in Le champion des Dames (c. 1440), that Du Fay has adapted his perfected graceful and expressive style from John Dunstable. Anyhow, Du Fay created the characteristic style of Bugundian composers that links late medieval music with the style of later Franco-Flemish composers of the Renaissance. Moreover, he frequently used (may have originated) the technique of fauxbourdon (false bass). A style of composition based on the sonorities of the 3rd and 6th derived from English descant, an improvisational practice. This technique was well used in his hymn Christe, redemptor omnium. Ultimately, he left 87 motets, 59 French chansons, 7 Italian chansons, 7 complete masses and 35 mass sections.
Binchois spent most of his career at Burgundian court chapel. He cultivated the gently subtle rhythm, the suavely graceful melody and the smooth treatment of dissonance of his English contemporaries both in his sacred and secular music. Also, he was best known for his chansons. He uses consonant harmonies, a treble-dominated style, varied rhythm and sixth to octave cadence, in his De plus en plus chanson. The traditional sixth-to-octave cadence between tenor and cantus was harmonized with a contra-tenor that leapt up an octave to sound the fifth above the tenor, creating a sound like a V–I cadence.
In the 15th century, the Mass Ordinary texts were set as a coherent whole, thus creating a polyphonic mass cycle. Correspondingly, for the separate sections of a mass to be linked, all five movements mostly had the same general style. Additionally, a motto mass could use the same head motive or motto to begin each movement. Writing cantus firmus mass (tenor mass) was another way to link movements. So each movement was constructed around the same borrowed melody.
Later on, four-voice texture became standard in cantus firmus masses. A contra-tenor bassus (low contra-tenor) or bassus was added to provide a harmonic foundation. There was contra-tenor altus (or altus) above it, and the top part was the discantus (superius). The cantus firmus could be taken from almost any form (chanson, chant, secular song, etc.).
Obscuring the cantus firmus was the next compositional technique. It was done by giving cantus firmus a different rhythm or by placing it in an inner voice which wouldn’t reduce its power to unify the mass. An example of this is Du Fay’s Missa Se la face ay pale, which its tenor is taken from Du Fay’s ballade Se la face ay pale.
In other masses by Du Fay such as Missa Se la face ay pale, the top two notes maintain smooth contours and sometimes exchange motives. On the other hand, the contra-tenor bassus provides the harmonic foundation.
To be continued…
By Arash A.