The Conservatism of English Music after Dunstable

As the 1400s reached midpoint, England was one of the leading musical nations, owing largely to insular traits best exemplified in the music of Dunstable, who himself introduced them to the continent. Somewhat later, composers of English birth--e.g., Morton--were active in the music-making of the Burgundian court. However, English composers on the continent represented but one aspect of 15th-century English music. Their works survive chiefly in continental MSS, while few of their names appear in the largest early 15th-century source of native English music, the Old Hall MS. Moreover, while a man like Morton was to become rather French in outlook, the composers not known to have left England seem to have been little affected by musical developments across the Channel. Instead of following the 'modern' styles of Ockeghem or Busnois, the English after the mid-century tended increasingly toward an insular conservatism, remaining less touched than continental musicians by the forces that were preparing for the appearance of a composer of the stature of Josquin. That this situation was recognized in the 15th century itself is evidenced by the writings of Tinctoris, who regarded Dunstable, Dufay, and Binchois as the teachers of the Ockeghem generation and who regretted that, while much that was new was being discovered, the English 'continue to use one and the same style of composition, which shows a wretched poverty of invention.' The gradual decline of the prestige of English music abroad is borne out by the contents of the Trent Codices: English music is well represented in the earlier MSS (those from c. 1420-1440), while less and less appears for the middle decades of the century, and for the period c. 1460-1480 no English works seem to be included at all. The conclusions suggested by this evidence have often been questioned. But investigation has not yet revealed a 'missing link' that will provide really great music for the period between Dunstable and Fayrfax. English music isolated itself from the trends of late 15th-century Europe, developing an estimable--sometimes a highly estimable--but conservative school of composers. Conservatism persisted in Late Renaissance English music, with certain notable exceptions. Fortunately, this persistence did not in the least prevent the production--mainly, to be sure, by the exceptional composers--of music that provides the Late Renaissance with some of its crowning glories.

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