Guillaume Dufay (Du Fay, Du Fayt) (August 5, 1397? – November 27, 1474) was a Franco-Flemish composer of the early Renaissance. As the central figure in the Burgundian School, he was the most famous and influential composer in Europe in the mid-15th century.
From the evidence of his will, he was probably born in Beersel, in the vicinity of Brussels. Circumstantial evidence claims him to have been born the illegitimate child of an unknown priest and a woman named Marie Du Fayt, though this suggestion is as of yet unproven. Marie moved with her son to Cambrai early in his life, staying with a relative who was a canon of the cathedral there. Soon Dufay’s musical gifts were noticed by the cathedral authorities, who evidently gave him a thorough training in music; he studied with Rogier de Hesdin during the summer of 1409, and he was listed as a choirboy in the cathedral from 1409 to 1412. During those years he studied with Nicolas Malin, and the authorities must have been impressed with the boy’s gifts because they gave him his own copy of Villedieu’s Doctrinale in 1411, a highly unusual event for one so young. In June 1414, at the age of only 16, he had already been given a benefice as chaplain at St. Géry, immediately adjacent to Cambrai. Later that year he probably went to the Council of Konstanz, staying possibly until 1418, at which time he returned to Cambrai.
Nuper rosarum flores
Music and influence
Dufay was among the most influential composers of the 15th century, and his music was copied, distributed and sung everywhere that polyphony had taken root. Almost all composers of the succeeding generations absorbed some elements of his style. The wide distribution of his music is all the more impressive considering that he died several decades before the availability of music printing.
Dufay wrote in most of the common forms of the day, including masses, motets, Magnificats, hymns, simple chant settings in fauxbourdon, and antiphons within the area of sacred music, and rondeaux, ballades, virelais and a few other chanson types within the realm of secular music. None of his surviving music is specifically instrumental, although instruments were certainly used for some of his secular music, especially for the lower parts; all of his sacred music is vocal. Instruments may have been used to reinforce the voices in actual performance for almost any portion of his output. In his lifetime, Dufay wrote seven complete masses, 28 individual Mass movements, 15 settings of chant used in Mass Propers, three Magnificats, two Benedicamus Domino settings, 15 antiphon settings (6 are Marian antiphons), 27 hymns, 22 motets (13 are isorhythmic) and 87 chansons. Assigning works to Dufay based on alleged stylistic similarities has been a favorite pastime of musicologists for at least a hundred years, judging from the copious literature on the subject.