IIIC: John Dunstable and his time

The leadership in European music during the latter half of the fourteenth century passed from France to Italy, but during the early years of the fifteenth century English influence became predominant, and mainly through the genius of John Dunstable profoundly affected later composers.

English music of this period, except for that of Dunstable, is mostly represented in a large collection known as the Old Hall manuscript, compiled ca. 1420, containing nearly 150 pieces, most of which are mass settings. The styles of composition are conductus, treble-dominated, isorhytbmic, and caccia-influenccd—that is, two upper voices, either in canon or much more animated than the lower voice or voices. The first two styles are the most common, the conductus settings being either simple, as in the thirteenth-century type, or ornamental, as in the Italian Ars Nova madrigal, and the treble-dominated pieces occasionally indulge in the kind of rhythmic complexity discussed in the previous chapter. This latter, together with the use of isorhythm and canon, shows that England was less insular than is usually made out. The prevalence of conductus style, however, indicates a conservatism which the example of Dunstable did nothing to alter; indeed, he can hardly have been known in Britain, as practically all his work is contained in manuscripts scattered about the Continent, notably those at Aosta, Modena, and Trent (all in Italy), only one piece, the very beautiful motet, Veni Sancte Spiritus—Veni Creator, being in the Old Hall manuscript, where it is given as anonymous.

Of the composers mentioned in the manuscript, the chief are Leonel Power, Thomas Damett, John Cooke, Byttering, Pycard, Nicholas Sturgeon, W. Typp, Oliver, and Robert Chirbury. The manuscript also contains the earliest surviving part-music by an English monarch—Henry V. Several of the composers in the manuscript, including Damett, Cooke, Sturgeon, and Chirbury, were clerks or 'singing men,’ of the Chapel Royal. This institution dates back to the twelfth century, when it was clearly an imitation of the Papal Chapel with its picked singers and composers. It was not confined to any one place, but accompanied the King wherever he went, and during the 200 years or so from Henry V to Charles II it included most of the leading English composers.

Although all the styles mentioned above had been and were being practised abroad, they show in general an important difference, a difference that was characteristically British, namely, a greater sonority based on the 'English discant' technique and evident also in the number of pieces à 4 and even à 5. It was this sonority which attracted Continental composers so much and inaugurated what the first great theorist of the century, Tinctoris, called a "new art". The third, and to a lesser extent the sixth, which had been gradually gaining acceptance in French and Italia compositions of the previous century, now became standard, but they did not yet seriously affect the supremacy of the fifth and octave, and in final chords especially the third was virtually excluded for many years to come, undoubtedly because it was less pleasing than the clear, open sound of the octave or octave and fifth combined.

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