In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Dunstaple

  • Introduction
  • Databases and Handlists
  • Studies of Some of the Major Sources of Dunstaple’s Music
  • Dunstaple’s Career, Employment, and Life
  • Style
  • Cultural Contexts for Dunstaple’s Music
  • Secular and Vernacular Texts

Music John Dunstaple
James Cook
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0218


John Dunstaple [Dunstable, Dunstapell, Dumstable, Donstaple, etc.] (b. c 1390–d. 1453) was perhaps the most influential 15th-century English composer. His influence extended throughout Europe and endured long after his death, becoming synonymous with that most nebulous of concepts: contenance angloise. Described by Tinctoris as the fons et origo of the “new art” of composition, Dunstaple was celebrated by contemporary poets such as Martin le Franc and later theorists including Tinctoris, and immortalized in two epitaphs which eulogized his talents not only in music but also in mathematics and astronomy—two skills that might parallel his interest in complex structural musical proportions. As with most composers of his period, he flourished under the patronage of magnates both temporal and spiritual. These included the Dowager Queen Joan; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; and John, Duke of Bedford, with whom he may have traveled to France. Through the Dowager Queen and Duke of Gloucester he seems to have been involved with the Abbey of St Albans, to which two of his motets, Albanus roseo rutilat/Quoque ferendus eras/Albanus domini laudans and Dies dignus decorari/Demon dolens dum domatur/Iste confessor, may be connected. The Abbot, John Whethampstead, wrote one (perhaps both) of the extant obituaries for the composer. Dunstaple was active across all the major genres of his time, generally writing for three or four voices (though a late five-part Gaude flore virginali, now lost, was attributed to him in the Eton Choirbook’s index and may correspond to an incomplete anonymous surviving setting). Perhaps best known are his large-scale motets, which often utilize isorhythmic principles across all voices. He was also an early proponent of the Mass cycle, using the same borrowed plainchant as a cantus firmus in every movement of the Mass ordinary. He may not have been the first composer to have done this—the evidence is unclear and further confused by an occasional lack of distinction between dismembered Mass cycles and complete Mass pairs—but he was certainly amongst the first generation, alongside Power and Benet, to have done so. He also composed a number of single and paired Mass movements, both apparently freely composed and based on cantus firmi. His secular songs are far less numerous, although this is perhaps due to accidents of transmission. The largely anonymous carol repertory surely does include some examples by Dunstaple even if only one (whose text is ascribed to “J. D.”) has so far been attributed.

Biographies and Reference Works

Dunstaple is the subject of several biographical studies. Only one of these is a monograph study, although other shorter articles also deal with his biography in a general sense. For literature on more discrete and specific aspects of Dunstaple’s life, see Dunstaple’s Career, Employment, and Life. There are also several short biographical articles given in General Literature with Substantial Sections Relating to Dunstaple.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.