Guillaume Du Fay

Guillaume Du Fay was a well-connected and influential composer who served as a bridge between the Medieval and the Renaissance periods.  He is closely associated with one of history’s most influential melodies, L’homme armé, which refers to the need for every man to arm himself against some (unnamed) threat.  The melody was used as one voice of the chanson Il sera pour vous/L’homme armé.  Some scholars have concluded that Du Fay wrote the song, but other candidates are Robert Morton and Antoine Busnoys.  In any case, Du Fay and many other composers of the day wrote masses based on the song, and it continued to be popular for the next two hundred and fifty years.  In fact, the most recent mass based on L’homme armé was written in 1999.


Childhood and Early Years in the Church

Guillaume Du Fay, perhaps the most famous composer of the fifteenth century, was born Willem Du Fayt on or around August 5, 1397.  His birthplace seems to have been the small town of Beersel, near Brussels.  Willem’s mother, Marie, was unmarried, and his father is believed to have been a local priest.
Marie Du Fayt’s cousin, Jehan Hubert, was a canon at the cathedral of Cambrai, in what is now northern France.  Although Hubert was appointed to the position in 1403, he seems not to have moved to Cambrai until 1408.  Around that time, he must have encouraged Marie and her son to join him; Marie went on to live with her cousin until he died.  By 1409 Du Fay was a chorister at Cambrai Cathedral and remained there at least until 1412. 

On June 24, 1414, when Du Fay was still only seventeen, he became chaplain at St. Géry, a parochial church just outside Cambrai.  He did not stay in the town for long after that, and it is thought that he went to the Council of Konstanz (1414-18) in the service of the Bishop of Cambrai.  His earliest datable composition, a Sanctus, was written during this time.  Sometime before November 1418, Du Fay came back to Cambrai, remaining there until 1420.

Travels in Italy and France

In 1420, Du Fay found a new position with the Italian nobleman Carlo Malatesta da Rimini.  Presumably they met at the Council of Konstanz, since Malatesta had never visited Cambrai.  During his time in Rimini, Du Fay continued writing sacred music (both masses and motets) but also wrote secular ballades and rondeaus.  One of his best-known ballades, Resvelliés vous, was written to celebrate the wedding of his patron to Vittoria Colonna on July 18, 1423.  Even in later years, when Du Fay was composing for other patrons, he continued to write works for Malatesta ceremonies and celebrations.  One such composition was the motet Apostolo glorioso, written for the 1426 rededication of a Greek church whose bishop was a Malatesta.

Du Fay left Malatesta’s service in 1424, but his whereabouts for that year and 1425 are unknown.  He may have settled in Cambrai in order to look after his ailing relative Jehan Hubert, who died on December 24, 1425.  It is possible, however, that he was in Laon, since his song Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys refers to the wines of that region.

Early in 1426, Du Fay returned to Italy, where he held a position with Cardinal Louis Aleman in Bologna.  In August 1428, however, an uprising forced Aleman and his servants to flee.

In the Service of the Pope

After being expelled from Bologna, Du Fay returned to Rome where he became a member of the papal chapel under Pope Martin V.  When Martin V died in 1431, Du Fay served the new pope, Eugenius IV.  The papal choir of the time was in a difficult financial situation, which may have led Du Fay to take a leave of absence in 1433.  By February of the next year, he was in the court of Duke Amédée VIII of Savoy, serving as the Duke’s maître de chapelle.
The major event of Du Fay’s time with the Duke of Savoy was the 1434 wedding of Duke Amédée’s son Louis to Anne de Lusignan, Princess of Cyprus.  In the retinue of one of the guests, Duke Philip III of Burgundy, was another great composer of the period, Gilles Binchois.  The meeting between Du Fay and Binchois is commemorated in a poem, Le champion des dames, by Martin le Franc, who was also present at the wedding.
Sometime before July 1435, Du Fay returned to the papal chapel.  Because Eugenius IV had been driven out of Rome by an uprising of one of Rome’s most powerful families, the Colonnas, the chapel was residing in Florence.  The most important work that Du Fay wrote in Florence was a motet, Nuper rosarum flores, for the dedication of Santa Maria del Fiore on May 25, 1436.

Return to Savoy and to Papal Schism

Du Fay left the papal chapel again in 1437 so that he could rejoin the establishment of Duke Amédée VIII.  He soon found himself torn between his current and former employers.  On June 25, 1439, the Council of Basel, in constant conflict with Pope Eugenius IV, chose Duke Amédée as the “true” pope.  Amédée became Pope Felix V, but Eugenius refused to step down.

As was common for churchmen of the time, Du Fay held multiple positions in the church, including appointments as canon at Cambrai (granted in 1436) and Bruges (first proposed in 1431 but not granted until 1438).  Such benefices could have been threatened by the papal schism, particularly as both popes were Du Fay’s patrons.  Luckily for Du Fay, he sidestepped the conflict by leaving the court of Savoy around the time that Duke Amédée was elected as pope.

Return to Cambrai

Sometime before July 6, 1439, Du Fay found new employment with Philip III, Duke of Burgundy.  This position enabled Du Fay to return to Cambrai, which was part of Burgundian territory at the time.  From 1439 to 1450, while remaining in Philip III’s employ, Du Fay served as canon at Cambrai Cathedral.  His mother still lived in Cambrai but died on April 23, 1444.  She was buried in the cathedral.

Du Fay’s main project during his time in Cambrai was composing music for the cathedral, yet little music from this period survives.  Recently the musicologist Alejandro Planchart discovered five masses and parts of a sixth, which he and others believe were composed by Du Fay.  These were not, however, for the cathedral at Cambrai, but rather for the Duke of Burgundy’s Order of the Golden Fleece, for whom mass was said weekly at the Sainte Chapelle in Dijon.

Travels and Return to Savoy

The papal schism ended with the death of Pope Eugenius IV on February 23, 1447, and the abdication of Felix V just over a month later.  A single new pope, Nicholas V, was elected on April 19.  Du Fay left Cambrai around this time, arriving in Turin by May 26.  The reason for his trip may have been to visit Padua, since he had recently written a mass, the Missa S. Antonii de Padua, for the dedication of that church’s new altar by the renowned sculptor Donatello.

Du Fay returned to Cambrai by mid-December 1450.  Around this time, he seems to have renewed his ties to Savoy once more.  In recognition of his musical contributions, Cambrai awarded him a large payment in addition to his regular salary on April 21, 1452.  Du Fay left Cambrai for Savoy soon afterwards. 

It is not clear what he did while in Savoy for the third time.  He is called magister capellae (“master of the chapel”) in several sources, but the records of the chapel itself never mention him.  The position was therefore probably a ceremonial one.  He did write at least two works during this period, one of which is a motet lamenting the conquest of Constantinople (today Istanbul) by the Turks in 1453 (O tres piteulx/Omnes amici eius).  It is also likely that he composed the Missa “Se la face ay pale” while at the Savoy court.

Du Fay stayed in Savoy for eight years.  He seems to have wanted to spend more time either there or in Italy, judging from a letter he wrote to Lorenzo de’ Medici.  He could not, however, find a benefice in the area.

Last Years in Cambrai

Du Fay returned to Cambrai in the autumn of 1458, serving once again as canon of the cathedral.  Many musicians paid visits to Du Fay, including Johannes Tinctoris and Johannes OckeghemAntoine Busnoys probably met Du Fay on trips to Cambrai as well.

From as early as 1470, Du Fay began to consider how he would be remembered after his death.  In that year, he bought parcels of land in Beersel and Wodecq, another small town in Belgium.  He intended this land to provide an income for both his funeral and the commemorative services that were to take place weekly after his death.  Sometime between 1470 and 1474, he also wrote a mass to be performed at his commemorative services, the Missa “Ave regina celorum.”  

In July 1474, Du Fay wrote his will.  He had accumulated quite a bit of wealth but had no close relations to leave it to.  One of his requests was that the singers of Cambrai Cathedral should sing his motet Ave regina celorum as he lay on his deathbed.  He died too suddenly for his wish to be fulfilled, however.  The great composer passed away on November 24, 1474 and was buried in Cambrai Cathedral.  His funeral monument survived the destruction of Cambrai Cathedral during the French Revolution and is now in a museum in Lille. 


Planchart, Alejandro Enrique:  ‘Du Fay [Dufay; Du Fayt], Guillaume’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 10 April 2006), <>

Planchart, Alejandro Enrique.  “The Early Career of Guillaume Du Fay.”  Journal of the American Musicological Society 46 (1993): 341-68

Stolba, K Marie.  The Development of Western Music: A History.  Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990.

Wright, Craig:  ‘Du Fay’s Nuper rosarum flores, King Solomon’s Temple, and the Veneration of the Virgin’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 April 2006), <>