We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

One of our best witnesses to Dunstable’s prestige and his role as catalyst comes in the form of an aside in the course of an epic allegorical poem called Le Champion des dames, composed around 1440 by Martin le Franc, a Burgundian court poet. Le Franc, an enthusiastic partisan of the French in the Hundred Years War, wrote the poem to persuade Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, to do what he eventually did: sunder his ties to the English and help the French drive them out. The presence of the English on French soil was baleful, Le Franc maintained; unchecked, it would lead ineluctably to an apocalypse, an end of historical time. Listing its portents, Le Franc pointed with a mixture of pride and dread at the perfection attained by the arts and sciences, beyond which no advance seemed possible. The fateful perfection of music, he alleged, was due especially directly to those accursed Englishmen.

At the beginning of the century, according to Le Franc, the composers most admired in Paris had been three: Johannes Carmen (whom we met in chapter 10), Johannes Césaris, and Jean de Noyers, called Tapissier (“the tapestry-weaver”). Their work had astonished all Paris, and impressed all visitors. But they had been totally eclipsed in recent years by a new generation of French and Burgundian musicians, who ont prins de la contenance Angloise et ensuy Dunstable, Pour quoy merveilleuse plaisance Rend leur chant joyeux et notable. (“have taken to the English guise and followed Dunstable, which has made their song marvelously pleasing, distinguished and delightful.”)

Le Franc’s vaguely eloquent phrase la contenance angloise—“the English something-or-other” (one dictionary gives “air, bearing, attitude” as well as “guise” as equivalents for the poetic contenance)—resists precise translation or paraphrase, and it is not clear whether Le Franc himself knew exactly what he was talking about. (The lines preceding the quoted ones are a merry hash of mangled technical terms.) But he was giving voice to the conventional wisdom of the day, and so it would remain for the rest of the century.

When the theorist Johannes Tinctoris, writing in 1477, made his famous announcement that there is not a single piece of music more than forty years old that is “regarded by the learned as worth hearing,” he was dating the beginnings of viable music to precisely the time when Le Franc had been writing. Anything earlier, he contended, was “so ineptly, so stupidly composed that they rather offended than pleased the ear.” And in a slightly earlier treatise Tinctoris had already identified “the English, of whom Dunstable stood forth as chief” as being the “fount and origin” of the “new art” that marked the boundaries of the viable.6

The “contenance angloise,” whatever it was, had already made a sensation among the continental churchmen and musicians who heard the choirs of the bishops of Norwich and Lichfield, and the instrumentalists in the retinue of the Earl of Warwick, at the Council of Constance that negotiated the end of the Great Schism in 1417. English musical influence reached its peak in music composed on the continent, in the wake of this council, for the newly reunited Roman Catholic church.

The French musicians named by Martin Le Franc as having absorbed the new manner and brought it to perfection were Dunstable’s contemporaries Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Du Fay. Tinctoris named them too, but as members along with Dunstable of the musical generation that had mentored Tinctoris’s contemporaries, the truly perfect ones. It was just as much the fashion in “premodern” Europe to regard the present as a summit as later it became the fashion to regard the past as a “golden age.”

Thus by the end of the sixteenth century Dunstable had grown sufficiently remote in time so as to lose his aura completely. Thomas Morley, a later composing countryman of Dunstable’s, writing in 1597, produced a little scrap from a Dunstable motet just so he could show what “some dunces have not slacked to do, yea one whose name is John Dunstable (an ancient English author),” whose quoted passage “is one of the greatest absurdities which I have seen committed in the dittying of music.” Or maybe Morley just couldn’t resist a pun. In any case it was nothing personal, nor did it signal any substantive change of mind or heart among music theorists. Morley was merely doing what Tinctoris and Le Franc had done before him—namely, despising music that was older than he was.

If Martin Le Franc was right, it should be possible to show how Dunstable’s music mediated between the music of Carmen, Cesaris, and Tapissier on the one hand, and that of Le Franc’s Franco-Burgundian contemporaries Binchois and Du Fay on the other. It is indeed possible to do this, and very instructive. From such a comparison we learn that precisely those features that until the end of the fourteenth century most distinguished “English descant” from the music of the continent—features like “major-mode” tonality, full-triadic harmony (or at least a greater reliance on imperfect consonances), smooth handling of dissonance—had the most decisive impact on continental musicians in the early fifteenth century, and therefore must have constituted the so-called contenance angloise.

A pan-isorhythmic motet by Tapissier, Eya dulcis/Vale placens, is actually about matters the Council of Constance was convened to settle—“Rome, all Rome cries out, ‘Away with the Schism,”’ shrills the triplum at one point—though it probably was composed earlier, possibly in Avignon, where the composer, who died around 1410, had worked. Another possibility is that the motet was composed for the court of Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy, who was then the chief rival to French power in northern Europe. In any case, one can easily see why Martin Le Franc said that music like this had stunned all Paris. It radiates power and authority.

Like the motet by Ciconia discussed in chapter 8 (also connected indirectly with the Council of Constance through its dedicatee, Francesco Zabarella), Tapissier’s motet sports robust ceremonial fanfares preceding each talea, which suggest outdoor performance on loud winds. (Such wind bands did often accompany the choirs at the Council of Constance, we learn from literary descriptions, and the English trombones were particularly admired.) The text setting is hortatory, orotund, even a shade bombastic. It consists at times of longish strings of syllables on a reciting—or rather, a haranguing—tone. The rhythmic writing shows traces of the ars subtilior, the Avignon specialty, in its long chains of syncopes and its little rashes of polyrhythm.

The tonality of the whole is unabashedly disunified in the old French manner, recalling the In seculum motets encountered in chapter 7 whose wayward, unpredictable cadence structure was seen as a plus, as an aspect of variety (discordia concors). The three pan-isorhythmic taleae in Tapissier’s motet all begin with fanfares on C, but make their respective cadences on F, C, and G. And then, just as in the In seculum motets, a single note evidently left over in the tenor’s unidentified color comes out of the blue and forces a final chord on F that in no sense resolves the harmony but confuses it—pleasurably (or at least impressively) for its original listeners, one must assume, if not for us. Ex. 11-17 shows the last talea and its surprise ending.

The only fair comparison with Tapissier’s motet would be another isorhythmic motet. Although he looms in traditional historiography (thanks to Le Franc and Tinctoris, among others) as a stylistic divider, Dunstable was at least as much a continuer and an adapter of traditional genres. He wrote a considerable number of isorhythmic motets, of which a dozen or so survive; indeed he was particularly expert in this loftiest of genres, as one might fairly expect “an astrologian, a mathematician, a musitian, and what not” to be. Like all his contemporaries, Dunstable was still brought up musically in the spirit of the quadrivium. But the content with which he invested the old forms—the new wine, as the old metaphor has it, that he poured into the old bottles—was indeed something different.

His motet Salve scema/Salve salus, in honor of St. Katharine (Ex. 11-18), is every bit as rigorous in its structural design as Tapissier’s. The tenor and contratenor both have strictly maintained colores that sustain a triple cursus. Each color, moreover, supports a double cursus of a talea that is maintained strictly in the lower parts from beginning to end, for a total of six statements. With each repetition of the color, the talea undergoes a change in mensuration that increases its speed: the second color runs at times the speed of the first, and the third is double the speed of the first. Moreover, the texted parts are pan-isorhythmic within a color statement of the lower parts: that is to say, whenever the lower parts repeat their talea at a given speed, the upper parts repeat their talea, too (compare mm. 145–62 with 163–end). The difference is that the lower parts never change their talea while the upper parts do so twice, as indicated.

Dunstable and the “Contenance Angloise”Dunstable and the “Contenance Angloise”

ex. 11-17 Jean de Noyers (Tapissier), Eya dulcis/Vale placens, mm. 77-115

Yet if the structure of Dunstable’s motet is traditional, its sound is worlds away (well, at least a channel away) from Tapissier’s, thoroughly informed by sonorities we have learned to associate with English descant: uniform F-major tonality and euphonious triadic harmony, with thirds enjoying full rights (except in final chords) as consonances. When in each statement of their color the tenor and contratenor enter after the introitus, we even get a deliberate whiff of what old Giraldus Cambrensis had called the “sweet softness of B-flat” (what we would call “plagal harmony”). Most of all, Dunstable’s music displays an unprecedentedly smooth technique of part writing, its dissonances consistently subordinated to consonances in ways that begin to approximate the rules of dissonance treatment still taught in counterpoint class and analyzed in harmony class (passing tones, neighbors, and so on). Ex. 11-18 contains the last color statement. Note the double cursus of the pan-isorhythmic talea: after the eighteenth measure all the rhythms in all the parts repeat exactly.

Dunstable and the “Contenance Angloise”Dunstable and the “Contenance Angloise”

ex. 11-18 John Dunstable, Salve scema/Salve salus, mm. 145–80

By contrast, Tapissier’s texture bristles with “unprepared” and “unresolved” dissonance. The last six measures of the example abound in instances: triplum G making a seventh with the motetus (and tenor) A, and then skipping from it; triplum and motetus both skipping to a clashing E-F(♯) second, and so on. Such things had been perfectly normal in the French polyphonic style that grew out of continental discantus. They will not be found in Dunstable’s piece. To ears trained to regard English descant as the norm, and to regard Dunstable as the “fount and origin” of viable music, Tapissier’s dissonances can easily seem like blunders, and it is easy to see why Tinctoris would see fit to censure such music as “ineptly and stupidly composed.” We have already seen the continental response to Dunstable’s motet style in Du Fay’s Nuper rosarum flores, analyzed for its numerical symbolism in chapter 8. There it was mentioned that the beginnings of “the Renaissance,” for music, are often associated with the work of Du Fay (more often, in fact than with Landini). That is because modern music historiography has, perhaps somewhat uncritically, adapted the views of Martin Le Franc and Tinctoris—about the significance of the English style as marking a new beginning for the continent—to the conventional vocabulary of art history. What is “Renaissance” about Du Fay and his contemporary Binchois is exactly what Martin Le Franc said was “new” about them: that they “have taken to the English guise and followed Dunstable,” particularly as regards harmony and part-writing. In fact the continental composers invented new ways—clever cookbook recipes, actually—for instantly transforming their style and donning that “English guise.”


(6) Tinctoris, Proportionale musices (ca. 1476), as translated in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 195.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Jul. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Island and Mainland. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Jul. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011011.xml