Music Guillaume Du Fay
Robert Nosow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0084


Guillaume Du Fay (b. c. 1397–d. 1474) was the most important composer in Europe during the fifty years from 1420 to 1470. More is known about his biography than for almost any other composer of the 15th century, in part due to his wide circle of patronage across Italy, Savoy, France, and the Low Countries. His music shows up in numerous music manuscripts from the first three-quarters of the century, many of which are available in facsimile editions. Indeed, his citation by music theorists or poets is rivaled only by John Dunstaple and Binchois before 1440, or by Antoine Busnoys and Johannes Okeghem in the latter stages of his career. Equally at home in Latin and vernacular music, Du Fay pursued an ecclesiastical career that began and ended in Cambrai, in the far north of France. In between were two periods in the papal chapel, as well as service in Savoy and several other courts, marking him as a truly international composer. Du Fay was as famous for his songs, both French and Italian, as for his Masses and motets. His oeuvre displays a constant assimilation or exploration of new ideas, as seen in the Missa Se la face ay pale, one of the earliest four-voice Ordinary Mass cycles, which borrows from the anonymous English Missa Caput. Overall, the music is characterized by melodic brilliance handled with technical and contrapuntal mastery. The publication of the Opera omnia (1951–1966), edited by Heinrich Besseler, brought the great majority of the music into readily available modern transcriptions, facilitating study of the composer. The appearance of David Fallows’s biography Dufay in 1982 (reprinted in 1987) synthesized what was known about Du Fay and brought further attention to the repertory from both scholars and performers. Despite the burst of interest in Du Fay in the last thirty years, much of his music remains relatively unexplored, as questions of ascription and biography have been sorted out, and studies of major sources proceeded. With a few exceptions, most of the items listed are those published since the Du Fay conference in New York in 1974. Because early music scholarship tends toward interdisciplinarity, many of these studies fall into more than one category. Similarly, many publications treat Du Fay in conjunction with other composers, among which only the most germane are included here. The spelling of the composer’s name as “Dufay” prevailed until quite recently, when it was shown that most archival documents, as opposed to musical sources, transmit the name as “Du Fay” or “du Fay.”

Catalogues and Databases

The published catalogues all deal with manuscript sources, but present different kinds of information. They remain important tools for the navigation and understanding of the multitudinous manuscript sources for the music of Du Fay and his contemporaries. The Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM) and University of Illinois 1979–1988 aim to be inclusive in their coverage, but the former also offers high-quality images of music manuscripts. As more manuscripts are discovered, they are added to DIAMM. Important specialized catalogues or databases are represented by Ward 1980 (hymns), Fallows 1999 (songs), and Wilson 2009 (the lauda).

  • Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM). University of Oxford.

    An invaluable database that contains thousands of high-resolution photographs of manuscript sources, organized by country, city, and institution. It includes the Du Fay Opera omnia edited by Alejandro Enrique Planchart (in progress; see Du Fay 2008–, cited under Editions). In future, the site will be searchable by source, genre, and text incipit. Access is available via free registration.

  • Fallows, David. A Catalogue of Polyphonic Songs, 1415–1480. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    A monumental catalogue that surveys the songs in nearly all sources from the period, each examined by the author. The catalogue is divided into sections by language, within which the songs are listed alphabetically. It lists text forms and variant sources, with concise biographies of composers and poets in two appendices.

  • University of Illinois, Musicological Archives for Renaissance Manuscript Studies. Census-Catalogue of Manuscript Sources of Polyphonic Music, 1400–1550. 5 vols. Edited by Herbert Kellman, Charles Hamm, and Jerry Call. Rome and Neuhausen-Stuttgart: American Institute of Musicology and Hänssler-Verlag, 1979–1988.

    A comprehensive survey of polyphonic manuscripts, now somewhat outmoded due to new manuscript discoveries and the inevitable revisions in dating and provenance for many sources. The bibliographies for individual sources cannot be found anywhere else. A list of all manuscripts with works by Du Fay appears in Volume 5.

  • Ward, Tom R. The Polyphonic Office Hymn, 1400–1520: A Descriptive Catalogue. Renaissance Manuscript Studies 3. Rome and Neuhausen-Stuttgart: American Institute of Musicology and Hänssler-Verlag, 1980.

    A thematic catalogue of all known hymns of the period, with source information and musical incipits for each voice.

  • Wilson, Blake. Singing Poetry in Renaissance Florence: The cantasi come Tradition (1375–1550). Italian Medieval and Renaissance Studies 9. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2009.

    Includes CD-ROM. The database represents a comprehensive catalogue of all the laude with musical models in the Florentine tradition. It is searchable by lauda incipit, song incipit, lauda manuscript, poet, and composer. A concise, printed study of the changes in the Florentine lauda to the mid-16th century accompanies the database.

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