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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Music of the Early Renaissance: John Dunstable and His Contemporaries (1966)

Liner Notes:

English 15th-century carols vary widely in function: some are devotional, others convivial. They have in common an association with movement, in dancing or processions, brought out here (Nos. 1 & 8) by added percussion. A final Latin line to an English verse is very common in the carol repertoire, and the present ones were familiar enough to the medieval Christian. Deo gratias was the response to the Benedicamus Domino sung at the end of Mass, and Regina coeli is one of the four great Marian antiphons. One of these is now sung after Compline, each during one quarter of the year. Two are sung here in plainsong (Nos. 3 & 14): the other plainsong, Reges Tharsis (No. 10), is the Offertory for Epiphany . Dufay's setting of the remaining antiphon (No. 11), probably written in the 1420's, does not use the plainsong melody. The Ave regina he asked to hear on his death-bed is his 4-part setting of some 40 years later, musically related to his Mass of that name.

Many other antiphons to the Virgin were almost equally popular in medieval times. One of these is No. 13,  in a setting by the Englishman Walter Frye (d. 1475). This may originally have been a 2-part composition with secular English words. Such adaptations (called contrafacta) were quite common: clear examples exist among Frye's other works. However, not only was this motet widely circulated in manuscripts, but it enjoyed sufficient esteem to appear in contemporary paintings.

The composer of this poignant setting of In tua memoria (No. 2) belonged to the generation of Burgundian composers headed by Dufay (d. 1474); both men were singers in the Papal chapel in 1431-2. Contemporary writers acknowledged the influence of the slightly older generation of English composers, led by Dunstable (d. 1453) upon this continental group.

Dunstable's only preserved hymn setting (No. 6) illustrates the convention of alternating verses in plainsong and 3-part polyphony. The top part transforms the plainsong into a melody of characteristically 15th century contour and rhythm.

The words of No. 5, from the Song of Solomon, are a processional antiphon for feasts of the Virgin. This setting, not based on plainsong, stands out among Dunstable's shorter motets for its very incisive word-setting in all three voices. The smooth harmonic progressions reflect a rather archaic style.

O rosa bella (No. 4) survives in 13 manuscripts (plus two organ arrangements) though only once accredited to Dunstable. During the next generation, extra parts were sometimes added to the original three. The richest of these versions, with five instrumental parts accompanying the voice, is recorded here.

No. 15 alone of Duntable's 12 isorhythmic motets appears in an English manuscript. The two texts printed above are sung simultaneously by the first and second voices. The third voice has the words but not the music of the Whitsun hymn Veni creator spiritus. One verse of this plainsong precedes the motet. Its first line is then paraphrased by the top voice, then continued in the slow-moving fourth part (tenor). The tenor repeats this tune, in identical rhythms (= isorhythm) but slightly faster for each of the three sections of the motet (marked "//" above). Also, each part has a rhythmic repeat within each section.

No. 7 features the French basse dance Filles à marier as the tenor of a charming 4-part setting from the Seville chansonnier. Each phrase is treated in close imitation. A number of tunes and choreographies survive for this courtly dance, which flourished around 1500. A tune provided a slow-moving framework for faster, improvised parts. In rare cases, written-out 'improvisations' have come down to us, invariably (as Nos. 9 & 16) on the tune known as La Spagna.



  • Barbara Elsy, soprano
  • Grayston Burgess, counter-tenor
  • Ian Partridge, tenor
  • John Whitworth, counter-tenor
  • Geoffrey Shaw, bass
  • GRAYSON BURGESS, director
  • John Sothcott, recorders
  • John Beckett, treble viol
  • Don Smithers, crumhorn
  • Daphne Webb, tenor rebec
  • Michael Morrow, lute 1
  • Jeremy Montagu, nakers & percussion
Track List:
  1. Carol (Anon.—XV c.): Sing we to this merry company
  2. Motet (XV c.): In tua memoria
  3. Plainsong (XI c.): Salve regina, mater misericordiae (Adnemar)
  4. Song: O rosa belle (John Dunstable)
  5. Motet: Quam pulchra es (John Dunstable)
  6. Hymn: Ave marls stella (John Dunstable)
  7. Song (Anon): Filles à marier
  8. Carol (Anon.—XV c.): Deo gratias Anglia (The "Agincourt Carol")
  9. Basse dance (Anon.—XV c.): La Spagna
  10. Plainsong (Offertorium): Reges Tharsis
  11. Motet: Ave regina coelorum (Guillaume Dufay)
  12. Song: Franc cueur gentil (Guillaume Dufay)
  13. Motet: Ave regina coelorum (Walter Frye)
  14. Plainsong (Hermannus Contractus-XI c.) Alma redemptoris mater
  15. Isorhythmic motet: Veni sancte spiritus, Veni creator (John Dunstable)
  16. Basse dance (Anon.): La Spagna
Download Link: Enjoy the Music!, or Here.

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