Lost in the stars

Once reduced to the role of stiffening 16th-century bookbindings, the manuscripts of John Dunstaple stand newly revealed as medieval England's greatest musical exports. By Andrew Stewart
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The Independent Culture
Before Lennon and McCartney, few English composers successfully influenced their contemporaries abroad. The conservative Elgar and insular Purcell, however gifted, did little to change the course of musical history; likewise, Dowland, Byrd and Tallis perfected their art without causing a revolution in taste. Only John Dunstaple can compare with the Beatles as an international trail- blazer, a composer recognised on the Continent during his lifetime as source of the much-praised "English style". Over a decade before his death on Christmas Eve 1453, Dunstaple was cited by the poet Martin le Franc as a trend-setter, the man who inspired the work of Binchois and Dufay. Subsequent authors enshrined his reputation for many years after his music had gone out of fashion and ceased to be heard.

But, besides his considerable talents as a composer, Dunstaple was also an able astronomer and mathematician. According to his epitaph, he had "secret knowledge of the stars" and the ability to "unfold the secrets of the heavens". And indeed a manuscript of astronomical treatises housed in the library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and containing a large number of splendid astrological drawings, as well as the signature "deo gratias quod Dunstaple", appears to be at least partly in the polymathic musician's hand.

It seems likely that Dunstaple served as both musician and astronomer at the court of John, Duke of Bedford, a younger brother of Henry V; as such, he would have spent time in France with his master. His name is also associated with the retinue of dowager Queen Joan, widow of Henry IV, and with that of her son Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, and there are further links between Dunstaple and St Albans Abbey and the church of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London. It is tempting to speculate on his royal connections and possible work as an astrologer to the English nobility, however heavily fiction would outweigh fact.

For all his celebrity, however, little is known today of Dunstaple's life; his music survives in a variety of often fragmentary manuscripts and much remained unpublished until his quincentenary in 1953, with many works attributed to him in one source often bearing the name of a different composer in another.

In the late Middle Ages, manuscripts of old, apparently outdated music were frequently recycled for use as bookbinding materials, while others were scrapped at the time of the Reformation, leaving behind a small and haphazard collection of works for the modern scholar to examine. Fortunately, most pieces attributed to Dunstaple appear in manuscripts originally copied in Italy and the southern Alps, and preserved more or less intact.

A new recording by the Orlando Consort reveals the magnificence of Dunstaple's music, rich in sound, technically certain and almost hypnotic in mood. Several of the works presented here have never before made it on to disc, including one newly discovered setting of the Gloria, almost certainly unperformed for over 500 years, and a complete account of the Mass "Rex seculorum".

Dunstaple expert Dr Margaret Bent, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, has applied forensic techniques of research to throw new light on the composer, retrieving lost works from time-worn scraps of vellum and reconstructing others that were incomplete. Earlier this year she received a photograph from the Russian musicologist Victoria Goncharova of a manuscript leaf, one side of which contained part of a previously unknown Dunstaple work. A Latin inscription, explaining that the work is a four-part canon, concludes with the words "quod Dunstaple". Although the bottom part of the leaf is missing, Bent was able to transcribe the canonic Gloria and supply a simple supporting bass part.

"It is the only surviving canon by Dunstaple," she explains. "We knew him to be a mathematician and an astronomer, but we didn't have any truly `clever' pieces by him, such as would support that reputation. The canon works beautifully, creating a very full texture, although it needs the addition of something else, which must originally have been on the bottom half of the page. In this case, I have concocted a bass part that supports the rest. I played with all sorts of possibilities, but the only thing that works throughout the whole piece is a very simple ostinato."

The canonic Gloria resurfaced in the Estonian capital Tallinn, found among the papers of the pianist Erica Franz, who presumably acquired it on her international travels. "It's a remarkable piece, quite unlike anything else," says Bent. "The closest and most evocative parallel I can draw is with Sumer is icumen in, the only antecedent I can think of that presents a four-part canon with a supporting accompaniment from other voices."

The verso of the Tallinn manuscript holds part of another four-part Gloria attributed in its other surviving source to Dunstaple, thus helping Bent to confirm that the leaf belonged to a royal English manuscript dating probably from the 1430s. "What is almost as exciting as the discovery of a new piece by Dunstaple is that it is preserved on a leaf from what was a manuscript compiled for use by the English royal chapel at the time of Henry VI."

In the early 1970s Bent proposed that 11 separate manuscript fragments began life as part of the same source, later refining her thesis to suggest that it was originally prepared for use by Henry VI's chaplains around the time of his coronation in 1429. The contents of what soon became known in the musicological trade as the "Meg Bent Choirbook" have been expanded with the discovery of other manuscript folios scattered in libraries and private collections across the world, from Oxford to Canberra, and now Tallinn.

Although a number of different scribal hands appear to have been employed in copying these fragments, the single-provenance theory is supported by the fact that several were used to strengthen the spines of books bound by the Cambridge bookbinder Nicholas Spierinck in the early 1500s. A manuscript of works by Dunstaple and his contemporaries would have held little value in the early 16th century, while its vellum would have been prized as an ideal material for recycling into modern printed books. So far, Bent has examined around 400 of the known Spierinck bindings still in this country without the satisfaction of finding another piece of music, a painstaking, inchworm process that may still be rewarded as her search extends abroad.

"The Estonian discovery has lions within the initial letter. The only other surviving leaf from this manuscript that contains any beasties at all is a setting of the Agnus Dei which shows the Lancastrian antelope. It's clear from what falls on the recto of that leaf that the Agnus stands at the beginning of the Agnus section of the manuscript, and several things indicate that the Dunstaple Gloria, complete with its royal lions, must be from the beginning of the Gloria section."

Bent adds that the canonic Gloria occupies a comparable position of eminence in the Tallinn manuscript to that of the opening Gloria - by "Roy Henry", almost certainly Henry V - in the Old Hall manuscript. "It suggests that Dunstaple may have had a relationship to this later manuscript as prominent as Leonel Power had to Old Hall, and that therefore one should look to his royal patrons as its likeliest instigators."

The rhythmic energy and tonal beauty of Dunstaple's work are convincingly revealed by the Orlando Consort, proving that Margaret Bent's labours are more than justified when the composer's music is brought to life. The extra-musical devices, such as number symbolism and formal proportions, divined in many of these compositions, may add to the deeper understanding of late-medieval composition. And yet there is a passion and sense of beauty in Dunstaple that speak direct to the modern heart. Bent agrees. "But I feel we should distinguish our emotional response from theirs. I feel even less qualified to talk about the emotional content of medieval music than I do about astronomy manuscripts. We're on very dangerous ground if we assume that our culturally constructed views on sensuality and aesthetic emotions are the same as those of Dunstaple or his contemporaries. Of course, if you adopt that attitude, then people say that you're not interested in the music itself. But I'm passionately interested in the music - I just won't be dragged into speculating on its emotional life as I don't know how to get at it, and I wouldn't trust anyone who claims to have done so."

n The Orlando Consort's new Dunstaple disc is on Metronome MET CD 1009