John Dunstaple (or Dunstable) was one of England's greatest
composers during the late medieval and early Renissance periods, and one of the
most influential the country has ever produced. His reputation was apparently
widespread, based on the fact that much of his music known today is through
manuscripts from Germany and Italy, and his music is known to have influenced
Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois. Writing roughly a quarter-century after
Dunstaple's death, the theorist Tinctoris noted the powerful influence
Dunstaple had over the Burgundian School. Yet, despite his fame and influence,
little is known of the details of his life, and what is known is best described
as educated guesswork.
It is assumed that Dunstaple was born in Dunstable,
Bedfordshire sometime around 1390, a date deduced from the appearance of his
first known compositions—the motets Veni
sancte spiritus and Preco
preheminencie—dating from 1410-20. Though he was apparently a well-educated
man, nothing is known of his musical training, and no connections exists with
either Oxford or Cambridge universities. It is possible, however, that he may
have studied with Leonel Power, whose style is very similar to Dunstaple's.
No certain record of Dunstaple's whereabouts is certain
until 1427, when it is known that he was in France in the service of John of
Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, and brother of Henry V. Accordingly, Dunstaple may
have been in France for quite some time, as the duke was Regent of France from
1423 to 1429, then Governor of Normandy from 1429 until his death in 1435. When
the duke died, he left Dunstaple considerable land grants in Normandy. In addition, according to tax records of
1436, Dunstaple also owned land in Cambridgeshire, Essex, and London,
indicating that he was wealthy. It is further known that he was in the service
of the dowager Queen, Joan of Navarre, and later Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.
Dunstaple died on December 24, 1453.
Only about fifty known works are attributed to Dunstaple.
Nearly all of this music is sacred, though there is no evidence that Dunstaple
was ever a cleric, though it is possible he was connected with St. Albans
Abbey. Besides being a musician, Dunstaple was also known to be an astronomer
and mathematician, and astronomical charts, believed to
be in Dunstaple's own hand, exist today.
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