John Dunstable


English composer. We know so little about him that almost the only sure historical fact is that he died on Christmas Eve 1453. Beyond that, the inscription of his epitaph describes his different professions, and in a book on astronomy in St John's College, Cambridge, he states in his own hand that he was a musician in the service of the Duke of Bedford.

The fact that much of his music survives in Continental sources suggests that his fame was widespread. Fifty-five works that are normally considered as by Dunstable survive, including two complete Masses (one isorhythmic) and several paired and single Mass sections, a large number of motets, and possibly two secular songs.

Thus all that we have of his music is in the form of liturgical or votive church music; what may be counted as secular music amounts to so little that even the most celebrated 'O rosa bella' is not his for certain. What is certain is that Dunstable was the greatest English composer before William Byrd. He was the man whose 'contenance anglaise' influenced music for a century. it did so abecause of his residence in France for a number of years as musician to John, Duke of Bedford—Henry V's brother and Regent of France from 1422 to 1435. It seems likely that the composer visited Italy also, judging from the number of his works that exist in Italian manuscripts. At any rate he was sufficiently renowned in France to be acclaimed by a contemporary French poet, Martin le Franc, who in 1441-2 wrote:

The English guise they wear with grace
They follow Dunstable aright,
And thereby have they learned apace
To make their music gay and bright.

'They' refers to the two leading composers on the Continent at that time, Dufay and Binchois.

The 'English guise' (or 'contenance anglaise') as presented by Dunstable was not only an increased sonority, but a more pronounced feeling for chords and chord progressions, a more refined treatment of discord, a fresher, more lyrical vocal line, and a greater equality of part-writing than had existed before, the chordal sense and equality of part-writing being a natural outcome of English discant and conductus style combined.

Although Dunstable might well be called the first great composer in the early Renaissance period, mediaeval features persist in much of his music—for instance, isorhythm (which, like most of the examples in the Old Hall manuscript, usually occurs in all the voices), polytextuality, and distinction between the parts, both through rhythmic differences and (more especially) through the use of voices and instruments, particularly in secular pieces, the most common layout being a vocal top part with two lower instrumental parts.

A Partial Dunstable Discography  |   IIIC: John Dunstable and his Circle