Church Music 3: 15th Century England

Both the dynastic ties and the dynastic warfare between English and French monarchs and nobles brought the two countries into constant contact, such that the music of Notre Dame crossed the channel and took on a peculiar English melancholy, or "La Contenance Angloise", based on the third, frequently enriched with the third note of the  triad, and the sixth. The music was a mixture of plainsong (for responses, propers and readings) and polyphony (for the Mass setting) and throughout the 15th century the use of antiphons and motets became more popular, particularly those dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tenors held the tune while the other parts made complex patterns around them. Boys only sang plain chant. Throughout the Century, too, Mass settings became more coherently based round a single melodic theme.

John Dunstaple (1385-1453) refined his music so fundamentally that later musicologists credited him with being the Fons et Origo of a new art. Because of his work and such contemporaries as Leonel Power (c1370/1385-1445)  England established a pre-eminence in music in the 15th Century, notably in the Burgundian School, not to be equalled again until the Beatles.   This explains why so much of Dunstaple's music survived abroad in spite of Henry VIII's Reformation depredations.

Dunstaple's style worked within current conventions but his use of English melody and rich harmony added extra richness and depth. His motets, with their varying speeds, reflected his interest in mathematics and astronomy.

In 1443 Henry VI founded Eton and stipulated that it should have a choir for which the music was collected in the Eton Choir Book; because it was collected early in the 16th Century, Dunstaple is not fully represented.

The English "melancholic" style survived through the Reformation in the Burgundian School and in the music of Byrd and Tallis and was taken up again the English music revival of the late 19th Century based on traditional folk music but after its period of 15th Century dominance, England was never again to be the central force in sacred music. By the end of the 15th Century the baton had been picked up by the Burgundians.

Further Listening:

Browne, John: Music from the Eton Choir Book, Tallis Scholars, Gimell CDGIM 036

Dunstaple: Music to the Plantagenets, Orlando Consort, METCD 1009

Eton Choir Book: The 16, Coro