For many years Cantica Symphonia has devoted much performing, musicological and recording energy over the music of the French composer Guillaume Dufay. Born at the dawn of the 15th century, Dufay’s musical career looked back to medieval conventions and forward to the early Renaissance. He was a much-travelled figure and was regularly present as musician, composer and emissary of church and secular powers at the many Ecumenical Councils held by the Roman Catholic Church during these turbulent political times. Dufay was often called on to write motets for important occasions such as the dedication of the Duomo of Florence – Nuper rosarum flores – or an especially critical meeting between the Pope, Eugenius IV and the Emperor, Sigismund – Supremum est mortalibus bonum (the names of both these two are to be found within the words of the motet).
Cantica Symphonia have taken the title of the latter piece for their second recording of motets for Glossa by Guillaume Dufay (to add to the first, Quadrivium, and the disc of chansons, Tempio dell’Onore e delle Vertù) and for its release we brought together the ensemble’s director Giuseppe Maletto (who also sings tenor) and organist Guido Magnano to reflect on the importance of Guillaume Dufay as composer and musician, not only for his own time, but also for performers and audiences of the 21st century.
Dufay is sometimes mentioned as a great composer to rank alongside Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. What, from across all his compositions, do you feel justifies such an assertion?
Giuseppe Maletto In my opinion, Dufay is a keystone in the history of European music, the leading transitional figure from late medieval musical language to the Renaissance. If one compares Dufay’s first isorythmic motet, Vasilissa ergo gaude, with his last ones, Fulgens iubar and Moribus et genere, one can hardly believe that they were written by the same composer. In the 25-30 years between these works, Dufay’s fusion of the early 15th century Italian style with the harmonic innovations of contemporary English composers gave birth to a new musical language which, although continuously evolving, survived for over four centuries.
If asked to compare Dufay with other composers, I would name Monteverdi, for his influence upon the history of music; Bach, for his ability to blend different styles into a fully coherent personal language; and Brahms, for his tendency to create vast musical structures (Fulgens iubar and Moribus et genere, for instance, are indeed true “symphonies”). Furthermore, all four were masters of polyphony and used earlier music as a source of inspiration, presenting both innovative and conservative elements which were far from contradictory to each other…
Dufay travelled widely throughout his career, attending many of the important councils of the 15th century. He would have possibly met many other composers and read (and heard and performed) their music. In what ways do you feel that Dufay had a strong influence on the compositions of other composers of his time?
Guido Magnano Loyset Compère, an important composer nearly fifty years younger than Dufay, refers to him as “luna totius musice atque cantorum lumine” (“moon of all music and light of singers”). Dufay’s early journeys, particularly his supposed participation in the Council of Constance, were highly influential on both his style and his career, but it would be short-sighted to regard Dufay as simply a musician. Working in Bologna, Rome, Florence, and later at the courts of Savoy and Burgundy, Dufay witnessed and contributed to the birth of Renaissance art, literature, and philosophy in years which were critical to the political and the cultural development of Europe. In contact with Brunelleschi and Donatello, he later attended the Council of Basel not as a musician, but as a jurist, a delegate of the Cathedral of Cambrai. The fact that his music has survived in hundreds of manuscripts clearly indicates the extent of his influence, a fact also apparent from his private correspondence such as that with the Florentine organist Antonio Squarcialupi. As Compère’s words suggest, the musicians of subsequent generations (Ockeghem and Tinctoris, for instance, had regular contacts with Dufay) regard him as a master and a guide, rather than a model to be slavishly imitated. The stylistic synthesis achieved by Dufay – as Giuseppe has mentioned, comparable only to that of Bach – is so deep that his influence is not merely a set of stylistic clichés, but a conception of polyphonic composition itself.
Your first disc for Glossa, Quadrivium placed special emphasis on the question of mathematical proportions in Dufay’s motets. If these considerations apply also to the works recorded here, can you provide some examples of how this came through in practice?
Guido Magnano Mathematical proportions do not occur in medieval and Renaissance music as occasional, accessory stylistic elements: the pythagorean-platonic paradigm states that music itself is nothing but “auditory perception of numbers”. The hypothetical relationship between the mensural proportions of the motet Nuper rosarum flores and the proportions of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, although fascinating and quite plausible, should not obscure that in other motets, particularly in the later isorythmic motets (Fulgens iubar and Moribus et genere), Dufay attains an even higher degree of formal complexity. The motet Magnam me gentes, (12:4:2:3) also included in this CD, has a mensural structure very close to Nuper (6:4:2:3). Worth noting is that the 15th century humanist Marsilio Ficino introduced a “platonic-hermetic” movement, attributing occult significance to numerical relations. Did Dufay himself share these ideas? Do the numerical ratios in his motets hide a symbolic content? Some modern scholars have claimed so, even though the pieces for which numerological interpretations have been proposed were written some thirty years before Ficino’s works, and it is impossible to obtain a conclusive proof that such interpretations reflect Dufay’s intentions. More concretely, one could ask to what extent mathematical proportions can be perceived by the listener. The “mensural proportions” (which are but one example of numerical ratios in this music) are merely changes of meter: in an isorythmic motet, for instance, the basic sequence of note values (talea) is repeated with all durations multiplied by a fixed ratio (e.g. 2:1, 1:2 or 2:3). Whenever the change occurs simultaneously in all voices, it can be clearly heard; in other cases, it remains hidden in the polyphonic texture. The mensural proportions also determine the ratio of the lengths of the various sections of the piece, and the choice of appropriate proportions was considered to be essential to the overall structure of the piece, much as in the Pythagorean scale where such ratios (1:2, 2:3, …) determine the consonance of a chord. As Leibniz states three centuries later: “Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.”
How do you suggest that one listens to the multi-texted isorhythmic motets? What are their special characteristics?
Giuseppe Maletto I don’t believe that Dufay was so concerned with the intelligibility of multiple texts sung simultaneously, but we don’t really know how motets were performed and listened to in the 15th century. This music was intended for an elite audience, probably capable of understanding all its subtleties, but I find it hard to imagine a performance aimed solely at making two or three simultaneous texts fully understandable. What’s important is the musical intelligibility of the polyphony and the projection of an acoustic image that matches the structural magnitude of the composition. I cannot imagine that Nuper rosarum flores, written for an extraordinary event in a enormous cathedral, would have been be sung by only four singers, as it is often performed today.
You perform these motets with instruments. How much use was made of such instruments in Dufay’s day? Were they used for all performances or for occasions of special importance?
Giuseppe Maletto Until recently, there has been a sort of crusade against the use of instruments in medieval sacred music. Yet not all sacred music is liturgical music. The term “motet” is applied both to pieces written for particular political and social events and to pieces to be sung during the liturgy. Even in the case of liturgical music, recent research has removed most doubts about the use of instruments. Nevertheless, some performers and critics continue to hold intransigent positions. I believe that in music, and not only, any sort of fundamentalism is harmful. Cantica Symphonia aspires to bring out the richness and the complexity of this music, with solutions specific to each different musical situation. Dufay never completely gave up the medieval technique of composing in layers. Each voice has a clearly distinct character with its own rhythmic and melodic patterns. A capella performances blend voices into a homogeneous sound colour. While purely vocal performance is appropriate for the homogeneity of voices found in the music of Josquin and his contemporaries, we believe that the musical language of Dufay is best highlighted by the use of various combinations of voices and instruments.
Was there a particular reason for recording this disc in the church in Roletto?
Giuseppe Maletto The church where we make all of our recordings, known as the Colletto, has perfect acoustics allowing us to record using only two microphones and without electronic enhancement. Part of a former monastery situated in the hills above Pinerolo, its pleasant (and quiet!) natural surroundings, together with the presence of many fine works of art, create an inspiring atmosphere for musicians. The rector of the church, Don Lorenzo Rivoiro is host of our activities and valuable collaborator. We organize a concert season of early music at the Colletto, and it is there where we have also recorded the music for our recording, “Stella del nostro mar”, in celebration of the church’s fifth centenary.
© 2008 Glossa Music / MusiContact