Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2451

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Guillaume Dufay. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I lived in an off-campus dorm at the University of Washington in 1952 -- working at Boeing, studying at night. There I met a very smart chemical engineering student, Nissim Marshall, a cousin of the then-Chief Minister of Singapore, David Marshall.

Nissim had just bought an LP record, and he demanded that I listen to it with him, all the way through. Little did I realize he was about to change my life. It held Josquin's and Dufay's secular songs, and it was the most gorgeous thing I'd ever heard.

Josquin des Prez is the more famous of the two today. He shaped the tonal polyphony out of which western classical music could evolve. He began the musical renaissance. Dufay, born a half-century earlier, represented the absolute pinnacle of medieval music. Dufay's and Josquin's roles were like Bach's and Beethoven's. Dufay, like Bach, consolidated and perfected the music of his time. Josquin, like Beethoven, broke new ground.

We hear rather little of Guillaume DuFay today but he was the most famous musician in Europe, in his time. He was born at the end of the fourteenth century -- the unacknowledged son of a priest. His mother Marie du Fayt settled him in the Burgundian cathedral town of Cambrai in northern France. DuFay proved to be a musical prodigy. Later he became a subdeacon at Cambrai Cathedral.

Dufay moved all over Western Europe. He spent much time in Italy where his patron was part of the violent House of Malatesta. He was even a member of the Papal choir. But he always returned to Cambrai. He eventually became Canon of the Cathedral there. By the time he died in Cambrai, he'd influenced the major composers who shaped renaissance music. You might recognize the names of Binchois, and Josquin's teacher, Ockeghem. Both learned from Dufay.

Now I look back to that ratty dorm room when I knew nothing -- only that I had to have more of that music. During the next forty years, I sang in one small ensemble after another -- recreating, in glimpses, what I'd heard that evening.

Music scholars write about Dufay's skillful use of isorhythm and fauxbourdon, about arcane number symbolism in his music. They give him his place in the evolution of musical form. But we can still hear him without any of that. Listen to his achingly beautiful song of farewell, Adieu M'amour. I heard it in that Seattle dorm. My wife and I heard the Berkeley Chamber Singers using it to sing us on our way after our wedding. Six hundred years may've passed, but Guillaume DuFay still speaks with crystalline clarity.

The beginning of Adieu M'Amour

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

C. Hamm, Dufay [duFay] Guillaume. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Stanley Sadie, ed.). New York: MacMillan Publishers, Ltd., 1980, Vol. 5, pp. 675-687.

R. Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 1. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) This has several long passages dealing with Dufay.

See also, the Wikipedia Dufay article.

At this point, I can no longer recall exactly which recording Nissim Marshall showed me -- perhaps he had two separate LPs. In any case, I have taken my musical illustration for this episode from a fine recording, made at about that same time: Guillaume Dufay. Pro Musica Brussels, Safford Cape, Conductor, EMS 206, Track 5, Adieu, M'Amour. The period image of Dufay and Josquin below is in the public domain. The passage of Adieu M'Amour above is from A. T. Davison and W. Apel, Historical Anthology of Music. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1957.) pp. 73-74.

Dufay and Banchois

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.