December 19, 2016. Dunstaple, Des Prez and Victoria. As the end of the year approaches, we’d like to commemorate some of the composers, most of them of the Renaissance era, that fall off our regular calendar, as their birthdates remain unknown to us. It’s especially appropriate as Christmas is approaching and most works of that time were liturgical in nature. John Dunstaple was born around 1390. He served in the court of John of Lancaster, a son of King Henry IV and a brother of Henry V. John led the British forces in many battles of the Hundred Year War with France (he was the one to capture Joan of Arc) and for several years was the Governor of Normandy. It’s likely that Dunstaple stayed with John in Normandy. From there his music spread around the continent, which is quite remarkable considering that a major war was raging in France. Dunstaple’s influence was significant, especially affecting musicians of the Burgundian school; the reason was both musical and political, as Burgundy was allied with England in its war against France. Dunstaple’s La Contenance Angloise, (“English manner”) influenced not only the two greatest composers of Burgundy, Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois but even musicians of the generation that followed, like Ockeghem and Busnoys. Here’s Dunstaple’s motet Quam Pulchra Es, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble.
Josquin des Prez, one of the greatest Franco-Flemish composers, was born around 1450, probably in the County of Hainaut, which occupied the land on the border between modern-day Belgium and France but back then was part of the Duchy of Burgundy (it was inherited by the dukes at the end of the 14th century). The Duchy was one of the most developed European realms, both economically and artistically. Philip the Good, the duke who ruled from 1419 to 1467, was famous as a patron of painters, Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden among them. Guillaume Dufay, the most renowned composer of his time, worked in duke’s employ. Very little is known about Josquin’s youth. It’s assumed that around 1477 he traveled to Aix-en-Provence and was a singer in the chapel of René, Duke of Anjou. Around 1480 he worked in Milan, probably in the service of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza. And it was probably Sforza who introduced Josquin to the Papal court in Rome. From 1489 to 1495 Josquin sang in the papal choir; a wall of the Sistine Chapel bears a graffito with his name. All the while he was also composing: we know that some of his motets are dated to those years. He probably moved to Milan around 1498 to work for the Sforzas again, and after Milan fell to the French he moved to France. In 1503 he was hired by Ercole, the Duke of Ferrara. It was here that he composed the popular Miserere, a motet for five voices in plainchant, which was probably inspired by the life and execution of Girolamo Savonarola (you can listen to it here, performed by the ensemble De Labyrintho, Walter Testolin conducting). In 1504 Josquin left Ferrara and returned to Condé-sur-l'Escaut, not far from where he was born. He lived there till his death in 1521.
We started at the very beginning of the music of the Renaissance and here is a piece that was written toward the end of it, the exquisite Taedet Animam Meam (My soul is weary of my life) by one of the greatest composers of the High Renessaince, Tomás Luis de Victoria. Victoria was born in 1548 in Spain, near the city of Ávila, spent 20 years in Rome but then returned to Spain. Taedet is one of his last compositions, written in 1605.
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