Review Summary: Part VI: Democratizing harmony
25 March 1436 was a significant date in the history of Italian arts/culture - the Florence Cathedral was consecrated, completing a 140 year-long effort of design and construction. The cathedral's defining feature was its enormous dome, conceptualized as an homage to more antiquated designs and a rejection of the Gothic architecture that had sprung up across Western cathedrals since the building of Notre-Dame. With a final design created by Filippo Brunelleschi, the dome's construction alone monopolized the last 40 years of the project, and to this date it is still the largest brick dome ever built. Symbolically, it stood as an intentional centering of Florence on the world stage, a prophetic statement given the city's status as center of the Renaissance movement.
Perhaps surprisingly, the person chosen to write a piece of music specifically for this consecration was not a native Florentine, but an import from the north of France. Guillaume Dufay (5 August 1397 - 27 November 1474) was an accomplished chorister, studying music in France before moving to Italy in his early 20s, where he eventually entered the service of the Papal Choir. The papacy was an unstable position at this time, with the Pope often having to leave for different cities due to rebellions or other political tensions with the community at large. Dufay, evidently the dutiful type, first followed Pope Eugene IV from Bologna to Rome, then escaped to Savoy where he found other employment for a time, and finally rejoined the Papal Choir in Florence.
Dufay's composition for the consecration, "Nuper rosarum flores" (English: "recently garlands of roses [were delivered]"), is demonstrative of the compositional style that he would continue to explore for decades afterwards. The piece is a four-part motet, and in some ways it does harken back to the medieval motets and polyphonic compositions that composers like his fellow Guillaume, de Machaut, had popularized - it contains numerous isorhythmic moments, particularly in the triplum (in this case, highest) voice that glides briskly over a trio of much slower-moving lower parts. But Dufay only allows these moments to be just that: moments. Broadly speaking, the piece is elegant and stately, employing a different way of approaching harmonic motion altogether than the stark contrast of isorhythms.
The term "counterpoint" emerges from the Roman phrase "punctus contra punctum" (English: "note against note"). As a philosophy of polyphonic writing, it essentially dictates that the composer should not only be thinking in terms of harmonies, but also about the movement of individual melodic lines in those harmonies. In a nutshell, counterpoint asks this question of a composer: how can one write the most interesting, beautiful melodic lines possible for each polyphonic part while still preserving harmonic cohesion? Counterpoint was neither named nor popularly used in the time of Dufay, but the seeds were being sown in the works of contemporary composers like John Dunstable, whose works were spreading around western Europe and receiving notoriety for their acceptance of previously-forbidden intervals like thirds and sixths. Including such intervals allowed for much greater melodic possibilities in these polyphonic pieces, and Dufay evidently saw this potential for what it was - perhaps that is why "Nuper rosarum flores" ends not on an open fifth (as was common for the day), but on a minor triad.
Returning to the motet, then: while not a cut-and-dry example of counterpoint, a certain difference between this piece and earlier polyphonic compositions is in the strength of each harmonic line relative to each other. None of the four parts feel like secondary embellishments to a central predominant melody; if anything, each part seems to have the primary melody line at various times. Hierarchy is obscured in this music, and if Dufay was thinking in these terms on any level when he wrote "Nuper rosarum flores" (which he almost certainly was - musicologists have unpacked a lot of symbolism in Dufay's music, this piece in particular), he achieved the desired effect in spades.
Dufay's oeuvre spans almost 50 years in all, and indeed some of his most interesting work comes after 1436, such as a mass setting he arranged based off a song he'd composed early in his career, "Se la face ay pale" ("if my face seems pale"). Yet "Nuper rosarum flores" holds a place of pride in his catalog and in Western music history because of the change it symbolizes. Artistry reflects society, after all, and the democratization of knowledge and expression that the Renaissance would embody has some connections not just in the circumstances of the piece's composition, but in the piece's nature itself. And indeed, perhaps that is why Renaissance music has kept its place in popular culture considerably better-maintained than its predecessors from even a mere century prior. It still speaks to the condition of the Western world, the foundations of what made people like myself (and presumably many others reading this) learn to think in the way we do.
The Hilliard Ensemble (1994): https://open.spotify.com/track/440OY4xfu31CbBgeg8Zubq?si=P3iO7cMCT9ux3lqrSzEnIA&a mp;utm_source=copy-link&dl_branch=1