John Dunstaple (or Dunstable, c. 1390 – 24 December 1453) was an English composer of polyphonic music of the late medieval era and early Renaissance periods. He was one of the most famous composers active in the early 15th century, a near-contemporary of Leonel Power, and was widely influential, not only in England but on the continent, especially in the developing style of the Burgundian School.
The spelling "Dunstaple" is preferred by Margaret Bent, since it occurs in more than twice as many musical attributions as that of "Dunstable". The few English musical sources are equally divided between "b" and "p"; however, the contemporary non-musical sources, including those with a claim to a direct association with the composer, spell his name with a "p." Both spellings remain in common usage.
Dunstaple was probably born in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. His birth date is a conjecture based on his earliest surviving works (from around 1410–1420) which imply a birth date of around 1390. Many of the details of his life are conjectural. Nothing is known of his musical training and background. He was clearly a highly educated man, though there is no record of an association with either Oxford or Cambridge universities. He is widely held to have been in the royal service of John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, the fourth son of Henry IV and brother of Henry V. As such he may have stayed in France for some time, since the duke was Regent of France from 1423 to 1429, and then Governor of Normandy from 1429 to his death in 1435. He owned property in Normandy, and also in Cambridgeshire, Essex and London, according to tax records of 1436. After the death in 1437 of another patron, the Dowager Queen Joan, he evidently was in the service of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the fifth son of Henry IV.
Unlike many composers of the time, he was probably not a cleric, though there are links with St Albans Abbey (see below); he was probably married, based on the record of women sharing his name in his parish, and he also owned a manor in Hertfordshire.
In addition to his work as a composer, he had a contemporary reputation as an astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician (for example, a volume in the Bodleian Library, largely in the hand of William Worcester, acknowledges that certain information within it had been copied from Dunstaple's writings). Some of his astrological works have survived in manuscript, possibly in his own hand.
Dunstaple's connections with St Albans Abbey are at least twofold:
He died on Christmas Eve 1453, as recorded in his epitaph, which was in the church of St Stephen Walbrook in London (until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666). This was also his burial place. The epitaph—stating that he had "secret knowledge of the stars"—had been recorded in the early 17th century, and was reinstated in the church in 1904.
Dunstaple's influence on the continent's musical vocabulary was enormous, particularly considering the relative paucity of his (attributable) works. He was recognized for possessing something never heard before in music of the Burgundian School: la contenance angloise ("the English countenance"), a term used by the poet Martin le Franc in his Le Champion des Dames. Le Franc added that the style influenced Dufay and Binchois—high praise indeed.
Writing a few decades later in about 1476, the Flemish composer and music theorist Tinctoris reaffirmed the powerful influence Dunstaple had, stressing the "new art" that Dunstaple had inspired. Tinctoris hailed Dunstaple as the fons et origo of the style, its "wellspring and origin."
The contenance angloise, while not defined by Martin le Franc, was probably a reference to Dunstaple's stylistic trait of using full triadic harmony, along with a liking for the interval of the third. Assuming that he had been on the continent with the Duke of Bedford, Dunstaple would have been introduced to French fauxbourdon; borrowing some of the sonorities, he created elegant harmonies in his own music using thirds and sixths. Taken together, these are seen as defining characteristics of early Renaissance music, and both Le Franc's and Tinctoris's comments suggest that many of these traits may have originated in England, taking root in the Burgundian School around the middle of the century.
The musical output of medieval England was prodigious, yet almost all music manuscripts were destroyed during the English Reformation, particularly as a result of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536–1540. As a result, most of Dunstaple’s work has had to be recovered from continental sources (predominantly those from northern Italy and the southern Alps).
Because numerous copies of his works have been found in Italian and German manuscripts, his fame must have been widespread. Two problems face musicologists of the 15th century: first, determining which of the many surviving anonymous works were written by which composers and, second, unraveling conflicting attributions. This is made even more difficult for English composers such as Dunstaple: scribes in England frequently copied music without any ascription, rendering it immediately anonymous; and, while continental scribes were more assiduous in this regard, many works published in Dunstaple's name have other, potentially equally valid, attributions in different sources to other composers, including Gilles Binchois, John Forest and, Leonel Power.
Of the works attributed to him only about fifty survive, among which are two complete masses, three sets of connected mass sections, fourteen individual mass sections, twelve complete isorhythmic motets (including the famous one which combines the hymn Veni creator spiritus and the sequence Veni sancte spiritus, and the less well-known Albanus roseo rutilat mentioned above), as well as twenty-seven separate settings of various liturgical texts, including three Magnificats and seven settings of Marian antiphons, such as Alma redemptoris Mater and Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae. Dunstaple was one of the first to compose masses using a single melody as cantus firmus. A good example of this technique is his Missa Rex seculorum.
He is believed to have written secular music, but no songs in the vernacular can be attributed to him with any degree of certainty: although the French-texted rondeau Puisque m’amour is attributed to Dunstaple in two sources and there is no reason to doubt his authorship, the ballade remained the more favoured form for English secular song at this time and there is limited opportunity for comparison with the rest of his output. The popular melody "O rosa bella", once thought to be by Dunstaple, is now attributed to John Bedyngham (or Bedingham). Yet, because so much of the surviving 15th-century repertory of English carols is anonymous, and Dunstaple is known to have written many, most scholars consider it highly likely—for stylistic as well as statistical reasons—that some of the anonymous carols from this time are actually by Dunstaple.
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