Guillaume Dufay: Mille Bonjours!

Diabolus in Musica / Antoine Guerber (Alpha 116)

7th April 2008 4 stars

Mille Bonjours!Du Fay, like most Medieval composers we know of today, has a reputation built upon his seminal sacred works. However, it is clear from this collection that his secular compositions are certainly worthy of recognition. Despite his prolific output of sacred music (Du Fay was a cleric and ordained priest), he also had two major periods of his life in which he wrote a total of eighty songs, such as those featured in this recording from Diabolus in Musica and Antoine Guerber .

During these two periods, he was heavily involved in court life, yet because of the twelve-year interim, the prevailing moods of these secular compositions are markedly different from one period to the other. Only just a young adult in his first stretch of composition, Du Fay's songs are 'joyfully optimistic and delightfully convivial' and advertised in this recording as melodic and accessible. He used his secular reflections as a reflection of his own life – ambitious and full of youthful exuberance, he was witnessing major historical events first-hand and meeting musicians from all over Europe (accompanying Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly, he attended the Council of Konstanz, formed to bring about an end to the Great Schism of the Roman Catholic Church).

After a great deal of travelling, Du Fay experienced a speedy rise in popularity, especially with all the noble patrons at the time. Indeed, after an interim period of several years at Cambrai Cathedral concentrating on his sacred compositions, it was for those very noble patrons that Du Fay ended up working, and composing a great deal more secular music once again. In this second period of secular composition, his music is notably more restrained and courtly, reflecting both his surroundings, but also the maturity of a man writing later in life, and on the other side of some of his greatest sacred works.

For this CD, however, the songs are not presented chronologically, but in sections according to their subject matter – 'songs of sorrow and grief', 'songs in praise of noblemen', 'love songs' and finally 'songs of joy and celebration'.  Although it is then harder to detect this change in his musical style, it presents his songs in a fluid, thematic pattern that works well and makes perfect sense.

Du Fay's work differs somewhat from his contemporaries in one very important way – his use and value of the text. Unlike many composers of his time, Du Fay allowed his music to be greatly influenced by the text he was using at the time. Rather than the text fitting the music, he deliberately tried to ensure a snug fit between text and music. Indeed, it is believed that Du Fay wrote some of the poems he set to music.

As is always the case with medieval vocal music, the making of any recording requires some important decisions regarding arrangement and most importantly, distribution of text. Lack of historical evidence means nearly every decision of instrumentation and text allocation is an important aspect of each recording. Diabolus in Musica's decisions have not only resulted in well-balanced, stylish performances, but they have also provided clear notes, explaining piece-by-piece the justification behind their decision and the evidence (or lack of) that supports these choices.

For just a few songs, we are treated to arrangements found in contemporary keyboard editions. These instrumental tracks not only work in the recording's favour, providing a pleasant interlude between vocal tracks, they also take the opportunity to showcase the rarely-heard clavicytherium – a form of upright harpsichord.

This is a recording astutely selected, arranged and performed, organised into a well-conceived set of themes and presented in luxuriously colourful and attractive packaging – certainly a  valuable addition to any Du Fay fan's collection and a great introduction into Du Fay's lesser-known, secular works.

By Claudine Nightingale