Guillaume Dufay

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... read moreFrench composer Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1397-1474) was the dominant composer of the early Renaissance and the most influential figure in Western music in the fifteenth century. Beginning his career as a choirboy at the cathedral of Cambrai, in his twenties Dufay traveled widely; he was employed at...

Key songs

Guillaume Dufay
Vasilissa, Ergo Gaude
Guillaume Dufay
O Beate Sebastiane
Guillaume Dufay
O Gemma, Lux Et Speculum
Guillaume Dufay
Kyrie Fons Bonitatis
Guillaume Dufay
Credo (Bol. Q15 No. 108)


Country Of origin: France

Guillaume Dufay began his meteoric musical career as a choirboy at Cambrai Cathedral in 1409. Before his death, Dufay would lead the papal chapel, consort with popes and dukes, collaborate with Donatello Brunelleschi, and be considered the first composer of the Renaissance.

His birthdate is unknown -- the suggestion of 1397 stems from the date of his priestly ordination -- but his lengthy contact with Cambrai Cathedral and the Vatican, combined with some indicators in his music, means that his life is quite well-documented. His choirboy service lasted until his voice broke in 1413 or 1414, when he was given a small chaplaincy. His early musical training came from choirmasters Nicholas Malin and the composer Richard Loqueville. The unusual gift of a book (The Doctrinale) in 1411 or 1412 testifies to the boy's intellectual abilities.

Cambrai's famous bishop Pierre d'Ailly took an active part in the Council of Constance (1414-1418), and Dufay's presence in his retinue could explain several points: his absence from Cambrai from November 1414, his early exposure to English music, and his contacts with the Malatesta family. After a brief tenure as subdeacon in Cambrai's St.-Géry, Dufay took up service with the Malatestas in Pesaro/Rimini. Two lavish wedding pieces, another motet, and a number of chansons date from this service, probably from 1420-1424. Dufay returned North to look after his mother, likely settling briefly in Laon, but he left for Italy again in 1426, bidding farewell to the fine wines of his homeland in the autobiographical Adieu ces bons vins.

Dufay stayed in Bologna in the retinue of Cardinal Louis Aleman for a few months, possibly beginning his law degree there, but by December 1428 he had assumed a lucrative post in the Papal Chapel. Under Pope Martin V, the Chapel singers enjoyed a high salary as well as the opportunity to hold several absentee benefice incomes; the musicians' fortunes improved further under the patronage of his successor, Eugenius IV (for whom Dufay wrote three more motets). However, Roman political turmoil helped push Dufay into the waiting arms of the Ducal Court of Savoy in 1433. As choirmaster there, his compositional life flourished, yielding a large cycle of hymn settings and many mature songs. A 1435 promotion to first singer (and choirmaster) lured him back to the Papal Chapel, then in the Medici's city of Florence; among other pieces, Dufay gave the City of the Lily Nuper rosarum flores after the completion of Ghiberti's dome and the consecration of the Cathedral.

Dufay had returned to a canonicate at Cambrai Cathedral by December 1439, where he remained for most of the remainder of his life. Only a trip to Italy in 1450, possibly to contribute the St. Anthony Mass for the dedication of Donatello's altar in Padua, and a final period of Savoyard service from 1452 to 1458, broke this semi-retirement. He took on a number of administrative tasks, such as becoming an ambassador to the Court of Burgundy (with which he apparently maintained a lifelong relationship), musically leading the petit vicaires, and supervising the re-copying of the Cathedral's chantbooks. He also composed several late cantus firmus masses, a lost requiem, and a plainchant Marian Office. Upon his death in 1474, Dufay left a sizable fortune (including cash, jewelry, furniture, and books), as well as musical provisions for his own memorial services. He also left an outstanding musical reputation and an exceptionally long shadow cast upon generations of composers to come. ~ Timothy Dickey~ Rovi