Guillaume Dufay: Biography & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

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

Guillaume Dufay is considered to be the most important composer of the 15th century. In this lesson we will learn about his life and the contributions he made to music composition.

A Master Composer

Italy in the 15th century was a wild place to be. There was no unified country as we think of it today. Instead there were numerous fiefdoms and families vying for power and supremacy. Their music was wild, too, full of impetuous passions. That is until one day, when a cool-headed composer arrived from the north. His music was refined, restrained, and perfectly executed. His name was Guillaume Dufay, and he took the best of the Italian music and created something new.

Dufay's Early Years

Dufay on the left with composer Binchois
Image of Guillaume Dufay

Guillaume Dufay was born c.1400, most likely 1397, in Belgium. He was the illegitimate child of Marie Du Fayt and a priest. He moved with his mother to Cambrai where he became a choirboy at the cathedral in 1409. He received excellent music and religious education there, impressing the authorities enough to become a subdeacon in 1418.

Dufay spent the next decade traveling between France and Italy, serving as a musician to various households. In 1428 he became a member of the Papal Choir. These were turbulent times for the Roman Catholic Church, however, with a lot of political wrangling. Dufay continued to move from city to city and position to position as popes were deposed or exiled.

In 1435, Dufay followed Pope Eugenius to Florence. There, he had the opportunity to meet the d'Este family who were well known for their patronage of the arts. They provided financial support for Dufay for years.

Dufay's Music

Dufay's travels were a wonderful opportunity for him to gather Italian influences and mix them with his Franco-Flemish education. At this time, Italian music tended to be more rambunctious and lively than the music of Northern Europe. Polyphony (music with more than one melody sounding simultaneously) in Italy was very busy with fast moving melodies. Franco-Flemish polyphony was more refined, calmer, and elegant. Dufay imposed his graceful melodies onto the more complex textures of Italy and created a style that would influence composers far into the Renaissance Period.

A Kyrie by Dufay
Image of Dufay manuscript

Skilled in composing for every genre of his day, Dufay wrote Masses, hymns, motets (short, polyphonic sacred songs) as well as chansons, ballades, and rondeaux (types of secular French songs). His music was all choral or vocal with some works being accompanied by various instruments.

Dufay was not known as an innovator. He was, however, a key figure in the development of the cyclic Mass. This is a Mass in which all sections are composed by the same composer with a unifying musical idea that runs throughout the sections. Prior to Dufay, composers would set just a section or two, such as the Gloria or the Credo. To perform a full Mass for Sunday worship the choir would have to use music from several different composers. Dufay composed his first two cyclic Masses before 1440. By the end of his career, cyclic Masses had become universal.

Another important technique made popular by Dufay, and perhaps invented by him, was the fauxbourdon. In fauxbourdon the different voices move in parallel motion. If one voice goes up, all voices go up. If one voice goes down, all voices go down. Dufay liked to use this technique when it was especially important to understand the text of the piece. The simple parallel movement didn't obscure the words.

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