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John Dunstable: Biography & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Although little is known about how John Dunstable lived, his music achieved acclaim and served as the bridge between the Medieval period and the early Renaissance. Learn about his music and influence in this lesson.

British Music Reaches the European Continent

The English guise they wear with grace

They follow Dunstable aright,

And thereby have they learned apace

To make their music gay and bright.

Thus wrote the 15th c. French poet Martin le Franc about the English composer John Dunstable. Most continental Europeans considered England to be artistically old fashioned and incapable of producing great music. John Dunstable changed their minds.

John Dunstable
Portrait of John Dunstable

The Life of Dunstable

Very little is known about John Dunstable. He was born in the 1380's and died December 24, 1453 in London. He was buried in the parish church of St. Stephen, Walbrook. He was skilled in math and astronomy in addition to music. It is unknown where he lived or traveled, but as a musician in the service of the Duke of Bedford it's probable that he traveled to France and Italy in the company of his patron. He was clearly well regarded on the Continent. Most of his music that has survived was preserved in copies made in continental Europe.

An illuminated manuscript of John, Duke of Bedford, praying to St. George, circa 1410-1430
Illuminated manuscript of John, Duke of Bedford

Dunstable's Compositions

There are between 50 and 60 surviving pieces written by Dunstable. The surviving pieces include two masses, several mass sections, and motets, which are sacred polyphonic songs. It is uncertain how many secular songs he may have composed. The popular secular song, O Rosa Bella, was attributed to Dunstable for years. It is now known to have been composed by John Bedyngham and is not a Dunstable work at all.

Dunstable's music serves as the bridge between the Medieval period and the Renaissance. However, his choral works relied heavily on isorhythms, a compositional technique in which one or more voices repeats a rhythmic pattern overlapped with a melodic pattern that may be of a different length. Dunstable's motet Veni Sancti Spiritus uses isorhythm in the tenor voice and is an excellent example of his style. This type of composition was most popular in the 13th century in continental Europe and was considered old fashioned in Dunstable's time.

Manuscript of Veni Sancti Spiritus
Manuscript of Veni sancti spiritus

However, Dunstable's explorations in harmony were new and exciting. His work with harmonies are what had a great impact on other European composers. Dunstable did this by using more consonant intervals, the 3rd and the 6th, than his peers. This gave his music greater sonority or fullness, less dissonance, and a more expansive sound. He also wrote melodies that were more lyrical and less disjunctive, giving each part more consideration and greater equality in their individual lines.

This attention to equality in the vocal lines contributed to another aspect of Dunstable's music that was modern. His music had a distinct feel for chords and harmonic progressions. In this period, composers were primarily concerned with the linear movement of the song. Harmony was a byproduct of how the lines stacked vertically. Dunstable was more aware of the harmony in its own right and thus composed music that was less discordant and more agreeable or sweeter.

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