Not until the early 60s, and the arrival of the Beatles–the legendary rock band formed in the Liverpool suburbs–did English music have more impact on Europe than at the time of John Dunstable, the famed English composer from Bedfordshire. With the advent of Ars Subtilior, the supremacy in European music during the 14th century slowly shifted toward southern France and northern Italy. The early years of the 15th century, however, saw a gradual transference in leadership from the continent to England. That shift culminated with various English compositional practices and techniques in English music being exported to Europe.
Essentially a rural society, with a total population of less than 6 million people–most of whom, engaged in agriculture, working the lands of the lords and those of a very powerful ecclesiastic establishment–England was nowhere close to boasting the kind of musical life made possible by the emergence of the Ars Subtilior and Ars Nova movements. England, for instance, could not claim any major musical figure of the calibre of Frenchman Guillaume de Machaut or Italian composer Landini.
This made for a 13th/14th-century English repertoire that remained mostly anonymous, with compositions confined to the monastic world:
“… Thus, English music written during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries consists mostly of compositions for monastic communities. Almost all pieces are anonymous–religious music written by nameless monks who lived and died in the service of the church.”1
It was within this context that the “Hundred Years War” broke out between France and England. While vicious and costly, this war greatly contributed in “laying the framework for the national identities of both England and France into the modern era”2. It also, to a large extent, facilitated the already-existing intellectual exchanges occurring between the two countries. When Oxford University was founded, for example, it was modeled after its existing French counterparts. Parisian Organum was often heard in French-speaking English royal courts; and compositional techniques in English monasteries were substantially inspired by the French conductus.
Some of these exchanges were exemplified by the increased adoption in Europe of English techniques such as the faburden, along with the frequent use of harmonic thirds and sixths, in what came to be known as the contenance angloise.
From English Faburden to Continental Fauxbourdon
The English penchant for harmonic choral singing and consonance can be easily perceived through a style of harmonization known as faburden, a technique in which singers improvise around a given melody with one voice singing above it at the interval of a fourth, and another singing below it a third, except in specific instances (mostly in cadences, and to avoid certain dissonances), where the third below turns into a fifth.
In her contribution to The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, Sarah Fuller explains the faburden as follows:
“The basic process is that the treble parallels the plainsong in fourths above while the faburden musician sights thirds and unisons with the plainsong and sings them a fifth lower, producing thirds and fifths (respectively) below the plainsong.”3
If we were to consider Kyrie, omnipotens genitor,
singers in England would have likely performed it the following way:
It was not long after the three voice faburden established itself as a main compositional technique in England that it emerged in continental Europe–under the names of fauxbourdon in France and falsobordone in Italy. While the exact circumstances of this transplantation are largely unknown due to the scarcity of documentation, it is generally accepted that the faburden was introduced to Europe via France, as it was customary for English rulers in France to bring their own chapels of musicians along.
Sarah Fuller further reports the following:
“In the later fifteenth century, a theorist who identifies himself only as Guilielmus monachus (William the monk) and who seems to have written in Italy takes the trouble to explain the English manner of counterpoint, a practice he calls ‘faulxbourdon’.”
While the final harmonization output is the same (parallel 6/3 chords), the continental approach to the fauxbourdon is different from its English counterpart. European singers improvised on pitches a third and a sixth below the plainchant. This technique is illustrated in Guillaume Dufay’s setting of Conditor alme siderum:
John Dunstable and the Contenance Angloise
Along with the faburden, other stylistic practices “traveled” from England to the European continent. Martin le Franc, a French poet of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, went as far as reporting that the leading French composers of that era, Guillaume DuFay (b Beersel, ?5 Aug 1397; d Cambrai, 27 Nov 1474 )4 and Gilles Binchois (b ?Mons, c. 1400; d Soignies, 20 Sept. 1460)5 did nothing but follow John Dunstable’s contenance angloise (English manner), an expression describing the unique polyphonic style developed in England, and championed by Dunstable. Encyclopedia Britannica states the following:
“…leading composers of the day, Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, owed their superiority to what they learned from Dunstable’s ‘English manner.’”6
Of Dunstable’s life, not much is known besides the exact date of his death:
“The few items of proved fact can be told in a few sentences, though the list of laudatory remarks by his contemporaries is rather long. We do not know when Dunstable was born, but if we grant him an average life-span of about sixty years, the date of his birth must lie somewhere between 1380 and 1390. He died on December 24, 1453, and was buried in St. Stephen’s, Walbrook, in London.”7
Unlike many composers of his era, Dunstable was not a cleric; in addition to his dedication to music composition, he was also an astronomer and a mathematician. He served the royal house of John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, the fourth son of Henry IV and brother of Henry V. As a servant of the house of Lancaster, his travels to France were frequent, and the impact he had on continental music, undeniable–as shown in Tinctoris’s testimony. The famed Flemish music theorist refers to Dunstable as fons et origo (wellspring and origin) of the English school of composition8, the main characteristics of which are: a very careful control of dissonance and an insistence of full triads, a technique often referred to as pan-consonance.
In Quam pulcra es, a motet composed by Dunstable, this technique is beautifully represented. Knowing the practice of polyphony in continental Europe at that time, one could only imagine how striking and odd Quam pulcra es must have sounded with its unusual triads gently moving around the scale in parallel motion.
The influence of Dunstable and his compositions, as well as the adaptation of the faburden technique, clearly evidence the significant role that English music played in the evolution of the European musical style during this era…the cross-currents, as it were, of cultural exchange across the Channel.
1 Wright, Craig M., and Bryan R. Simms. “Music in England.” Music in Western Civilization. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Schirmer, 2006. 115
2 Sumption, Jonathan. Preface. The Hundred Years War, Volume 3: Divided Houses. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 2009.
3 Fuller, Sarah. “Compositional Theory – Organum – Discantus – Contrapunctus in the Middle Ages.” Ed. Thomas Street Christensen. The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. 497. Print
4 Planchard, Alejandro. “Du Fay, Guillaume.” Oxford Music Online. 10 Nov. 2004. 19 Sept. 2010 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edusubscriberarticlegrovemusic08268q=dufay&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit>
5 Pryer, Anthony. “Binchois.” Oxford Music Online. 19 Sept. 2010 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/subscriber/article/opr/t114/e803?q=binchois&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit>.
6 “John Dunstable.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Web. 19 Sept. 2010. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/173864/John-Dunstable>.
7 Bukofzer, Manfred F. “John Dunstable: A Quincentenary Report.” The Musical Quarterly XL.1 (1954): 29-49. Web.
8 Bent, Margaret. “The Musical Stanzas in Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion Des Dames.” Music and Medieval Manuscripts: Paleography and Performance : Essays. By Andrew Hughes, John Dickinson. Haines, and Randall Rosenfeld. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2004. 91. Print.