Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: One of the Great Ones!

We celebrate the birth on August 5, 1397 – 622 years ago today – of the composer Guillaume Du Fay. He was, by every standard, one of the greatest composers to have ever lived and was admired as such in his own lifetime.

A lovely performance of Guillaume Du Fay’s Nuper rosarum flores by the Quire Cleveland, conducted by Ross W. Duffin, and recorded at the Mary Queen of Peace Church in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 27, 2014
Guillaume Du Fay
Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474)

He was born in the Flemish (today Belgian) town of Bersele (today Beersel), just south of Brussels. He died 77 years later, on November 27, 1474, just across the border in northern France, in the town of Cambrai. 

Du Fay is a principal member of the fraternity of Franco-Flemish (that is, French-Belgian) composers who dominated European music in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. That fraternity boasted some pretty heavy compositional hitters, including Jacob Obrecht, Heinrich Isaac, Orlando de Lassus, Johannes Ockeghem, and the über-great Josquin Des Prez. With the exception of Ockeghem, all these guys spent a significant portion of their careers in Italy, where the climate was swell and the pay was sweet. The Italians called them the “oltremontani”, literally “the dudes from the other side of the alps.”

We don’t know much about Du Fay’s early life. We know that he was the illegitimate child of an unmarried woman named Marie Du Fayt (F-A-Y-T) and an unknown priest. (We shall resist comment on that tidbit.)

We know that early on, Marie Du Fayt moved to Cambrai – in France – where she had family, and that her son Guillaume (or “William”) was educated at the cathedral in Cambrai, where he was chorister as well. 

Du Fay’s musical star burned bright, and in 1428 – now a singer and composer of considerable renown – he joined the papal choir in Rome. Said to have been founded by Pope Gregory the Great his very self (who reigned from 590 to 604 and for whom “Gregorian Chant” is named), the papal choir was the greatest choir in the world at the time, the choral equivalent of the 1927 Yankees, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 2017 Golden State Warriors.

While in Rome, Du Fay became a friend of Cardinal Gabriele Condulmer. Du Fay chose his friend wisely, because in 1431 Cardinal Condulmer became Pope Eugene IV.

Gabriele Condulmer/Pope Eugene IV
Gabriele Condulmer (1383-1447); Pope Eugene IV (1431-1447

Eugene IV was the second post-schism pope to rule over a reunited church. (The “Western Schism” – 1378-1417 – was a period that saw two, and even three men simultaneously claim to be the one, “true” pope, each one excommunicating the others.) Unfortunately, the end of the schism did not mean that peace reigned in Rome, and just three years into his reign – in 1434 – a rebellion once again forced the pope to flee Rome (which is what had caused the schism in the first place). The papal court, including the papal choir, went north and set up shop in Florence.

Along with being thin and rich, location and timing are everything. For Du Fay, the timing of the papacy’s move to Florence could not have been more fortuitous. Florence was at the height of her wealth and power, and in 1436 Florence’s great cathedral – under reconstruction since the 1290s – was ready to be rededicated. On March 25, 1436 (the Feast of the Annunciation and the Florentine New Year’s Day), Florence’s distinguished guest, Pope Eugene IV, conducted the consecration ceremony himself. The cathedral, to that time known as Santa Reperata, was renamed Santa Maria del Fiore (“St. Mary of the Flowers”) in honor of the Virgin Mary. To commemorate the occasion, the pope commissioned Guillaume Du Fay to compose a motet.

Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

For our information: the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is crowned by a cupola (a dome) that is one of the great wonders of human ingenuity. Designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) between 1419 and 1436, the dome had to be self-supporting because there was nowhere to put external buttresses that might have held it up from the outside. Brunelleschi’s solution was to build an elongated, double dome, with the outer dome resting on an inner shell. The structural integrity of both domes was guaranteed by laying successive rings of bricks in a herringbone pattern (over four million bricks in all!). 

The outer dome is divided into eight segments by vertical ribs which themselves are held in place on top by a huge white marble lantern topped with a copper orb. 

Inspired to his cockles by this constructive wizardry, Du Fay composed a dedicatory motet (which is a polyphonic vocal work that may or may not be accompanied by instruments), a motet that is, in its musical construction and religious symbolism, as ingenious (and as complicated) as Brunelleschi’s own, nearly-completed dome. 

Du Fay’s motet, entitled Nuper rosarum flores, or “Recent Rose Blossoms”, despite being a relatively early composition, remains his single most famous work. The motet’s title – “Recent Rose Blossoms” – refers directly to the name of the newly consecrated cathedral, “Saint Mary of the Flowers”. The motet freely mixes the compositional “old” with the “new”: combining an old technique drawn from the fourteenth century with the new, fifteenth century concepts of harmonic consonance and dissonance and the triad as the basic unit of harmony.

Now bear with me for a moment. The old technique – the fourteenth century technique -that Du Fay employs in “Recent Rose Blossoms” is called isorhythm. An isorhythmic work is one in which one or more of its melodic parts features a sequence of rhythms that is repeated over and over again. In such a melodic part, the pitches will change, but the rhythmic sequence – the underlying rhythmic pattern – remains the same. Such an isorhythmic melody line is called a talea; the plural is taleae. As listeners, we are not expected to be able to follow an isorhythmic part (“talea”); rather, isorhythm was considered a metaphor for the grace and order of God that lays invisibly behind all things.

“Recent Rose Blossoms” is scored for four parts: two tenor voices, both of which are isorhythmic, and two upper voices that are freely composed. The talea – the repeated sequence of rhythms heard in the tenor parts – is heard four times. However, Du Fay does not repeat the taleae exactly each time but, rather, alters the duration of the rhythmic values of each repetition relative to the others, creating a ratio of 6:4:2:3. (For example, the first note in the first version of the talea is sustained for 12 beats; the first note in the second version of the talea is sustained for 8 beats; the first note of talea three for 4 beats; and the first note of talea four for 6 beats: creating between the taleae a 6:4:2:3 ratio.)

This 6:4:2:3 structural ratio portrays – according to Biblical tradition – the proportions of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. According to the second book of Kings, Solomon’s Temple was 60 cubits in length (a cubit measuring about 18 inches), the inner sanctum (or nave) was 40 cubits from the Temple’s doors, 20 cubits in width, and 30 cubits in height, These are exactly the durational proportions of Du Fay’s taleae – 6:4:2:3 – proportions that became a symbol for every consecrated church in Christendom, including Santa Maria del Fiore

But wait! When it comes to numerical symbolism, there’s more! We also read in Kings that the dedication feasts of the Temple of Solomon lasted for “seven days and seven days, that is fourteen days” (2 Kings 8:65). Each of the four taleae contains 14 pitches, divided between the two tenors as 7 + 7. The number 7 also relates directly to the seven pillars of Solomon’s Temple, the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit (which would have filled the Temple at its dedication), and the seven censings, the blessing of the altar with incense, during the Dedication Service. 

But there’s still more! In Christian symbolism, the number seven represents the Virgin’s sevenfold attributes: seven sorrows, seven joys, seven acts of mercy, seven virginal companions, and so forth. 

As far as Du Fay’s numerical symbolism goes, we’ll stop here, with the understanding that we’ve only scraped the surface of possible symbolic meanings in the motet and that we haven’t even talked about the upper two voices and the celebratory text that they sing. That text was likely written by Du Fay himself and is cast in four stanzas. Here is the first:

Nuper rosarum flores
Ex dono pontificis
Hieme licet horrida
Tibi, virgo cœlica, 
Pie et sancte deditum
Grandis templum machinæ
Condecorarunt perpetim.
Recent rose blossoms,
The Pope’s gift
After the terrible winter,
For you, celestial virgin,
Pious and holy, come to adorn
The church dedicated to thee,
With this great dome, forever.

I’ll ask the question many of you are thinking: why should all the technical stuff regarding the isorhythmic taleae and the numerical symbolism matter? Isn’t the important thing how the music sounds and how it makes us feel?

It matters because Du Fay was a fifteenth century composer, who – like an architect – was expected to design his music. In Du Fay’s day, structural proportions were an essential and intrinsic element of musical expression, especially in sacred music, in that they reflected God’s wisdom and perfection. Gloriously beautiful though it is, one of the reasons why this music is rarely heard today is that it doesn’t seem to resonate with our fetish for emotional expression. But as a sacred work composed in 1436, Nuper rosarum flores is deeply expressive: it is based on the “word” of God (by employing pitch sequences drawn from plainchant) and its structure expresses God’s omnipresent excellence. For educated listeners in 1436, that was as musically expressive as it got!

Happy birthday, Maestro Du Fay. You don’t look a day over 621.

For lots more on the music of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, third edition, which can be examined and purchased for download here at

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