Guillaume Dufay

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Guillaume Dufay

Guillaume Du Fay ( pronunciation in French: / dy fa (j) i /) or Dufay , Du Fayt (August 5, 1397 – November 27, 1474) was a Franco-Flemish composer and musician of the first Renaissance. As a central figure in the Burgundian school, he is the most famous and influential composer of the European music scene of the mid-fifteenth century.


Portrait of a young man (sometimes identified as Dufay), by Jan van Eyck. National Gallery of London.

Guillaume_Dufay’s Biography

From his testament it is deduced that he was probably born in Bravante (Beersel in Flemish, present-day Belgium). Other sources point to possibly being born in Fayt. He was the illegitimate son of an unknown priest and a woman named Marie Du Fayt Marie moved with his son to Cambrai when he was very young, staying with a relative who was there canon of the cathedral. The cathedral authorities soon discovered the musical talent of Dufay, and it is evident that they provided him with a complete musical training; he studied with Rogier de Hesdin during the summer of 1409, and was a choir boy in the cathedral from 1409 to 1412. During those years he studied with Nicolas Malin, and the authorities must have been impressed with the boy’s abilities because they gave him his own copy of the Doctrinale de Villedieu in 1411, a very unusual event for someone so young. In June 1414, when he was only sixteen years old, he had already obtained a benefit as a chaplain from St. Géry, adjacent to Cambrai. Later that year, he probably went to the Council of Constance, possibly staying until 1418, when he returned to Cambrai.

From November 1418 to 1420 he was sub-deacon in the cathedral of Cambrai. In 1420 he left Cambrai again, to go this time to Rimini, and possibly to Pesaro, where he worked for the Malatesta family. Although there is no documentary evidence of his stay there, several of his compositions can be dated from this period; They contain references that reasonably make a stay in Italy. There he met the composers Hugo and Arnold de Lantins, who were among the musicians of the Malatesta. In 1424 he returned to Cambrai again, this time due to the illness and subsequent death of the relative with whom his mother was. By 1426, however, he was back in Italy, this time in Bologna, where he entered the service of Cardinal Luis Alemán, the papal legate. While in Bologna he became a deacon, and by 1428, a priest.

Cardinal Aleman was expelled from Bologna by the rival Canedoli family in 1428, and Dufay also left at this time, marching to Rome. He became a member of the Papal Choir, serving first Pope Martin V, and then after his death in 1431, Pope Eugenius IV. In 1434 he was appointed maistre de chappelle in Savoy, where he entered the service of Duke Amadeo VIII; He evidently left Rome due to a crisis in the finances of the papal choir, and to escape the turbulence and insecurities during the struggle between the papacy and the Basle council. Even so, in 1435 he was again in the service of the papal chapel, but this time it was in Florence – Pope Eugene had been expelled from Rome in 1434 for the establishment there of an insurrectionary republic, sympathetic to the Council of Basle and the conciliar movement. In 1436 Dufay composed the festive motet Nuper rosarum flores, one of his most famous compositions, which was sung in the blessing of Brunelleschi’s dome of the cathedral of Florence, where Eugenio lived in exile.

During this period Dufay also began his long association with Este’s family in Ferrara, some of the most important musical patrons during the Renaissance, and with whom he had probably become aware during the days of his association with the Malatesta family; Rimini and Ferrara are not only geographically close, but also, the two families were related by marriage, and Dufay composed at least one ballad for Nicolás III, Marqués de Ferrara. In 1437 Dufay visited the city. When Nicolás died in 1441, the next Marquess maintained contact with Dufay, and not only continued to support the composer financially but copied and distributed part of his music.

The struggle between the Papacy and the Council of Basle continued in the 1430s, and evidently Dufay realized that his own position could be affected by the conflict that was spreading, especially since Pope Eugene was deposed in 1439 by the Council and replaced by the own Duke Amadeo de Saboya, like Pope (Antipapa) Felix V. At this time Dufay returned to his native land, arriving at Cambrai in December of that year. To be a canon in Cambrai, he needed a law degree, which he obtained in 1437; he may have studied at the University of Turin in 1436. One of the first documents mentioning him in Cambrai is dated December 27, 1440, when he received a delivery of 36 lots of wine for the feast of St. John the Evangelist.

Dufay remained in Cambrai throughout the 1440s, and during this time he was also in the service of the Duke of Burgundy. While in Cambrai he collaborated with Nicolas Grenon on a complete revision of the cathedral’s liturgical music collection, which included writing an extensive collection of polyphonic music for services. In addition to his musical work, he was active in the general administration of the cathedral. In 1444 his mother Marie died, and was buried in the cathedral; and in 1445 Dufay moved to the house of the previous canon, which was to be his principal residence for the rest of his life.

After the abdication of the last antipope (Felix V) in 1449, the fight between different factions of the church began to soften, and Dufay again left to the south. He went to Turin in 1450, shortly after the death of Duke Amadeo, but returned to Cambrai later that year. In 1452 he marched back to Savoy and this time he was not back for Cambrai until six years later. During that time he tried to find a benefit or a job that would allow him to stay in Italy. Of this period numerous compositions survive, including one of the four Lamentationes that composed by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, his famous mass based on Se la face ay pale; a letter to Lorenzo de ‘Medici is also preserved. But, since he was unable to find a satisfactory position to retire, he returned north in 1458. Being in Savoy he served more or less officially as a choirmaster for Louis of Savoy, but more likely as a ceremonial role, because the archives of the chapel is never mentioned.

When he returned to Cambrai for his last years, he was named canon of the cathedral. He was then the best-known composer in Europe. He again strengthened ties with the court of Burgundy, and continued composing music for them; In addition, he received many visitors, including Antoine Busnois, Ockeghem, Johannes Tinctoris and Loyset Compère, all of whom were instrumental in the development of the polyphonic style in the next generation. During this period he probably wrote his mass based on L’homme armé, as well as the chanson of the same tune; this last composition may have been inspired by the call of Philip the Good for a new crusade against the Turks, who had recently taken Constantinople. He also wrote a Requiem Mass around 1460, today lost.

After an illness that lasted several weeks, Dufay died on November 27, 1474. He had requested that his motet Ave regina celorum be sung while he died, with requests for mercy interpolated between the verses of the antiphon, but there was no time to organize it. Dufay was buried in the chapel of San Esteban in the cathedral of Cambrai; his portrait was engraved on his tombstone. After the destruction of the cathedral the tombstone was lost, but it was found again in 1859 (it was used to cover a well), and now it is in a museum in Lille.

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