The Music of Man : The Quiver of Life (Program 1) and the Flowering of Harmony (Program 2)
John Dunstable (or Dunstaple) is widely given credit for changing the face of music between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by introducing new, “sweeter” harmonies. In addition, he was probably the first English composer to have a substantial influence upon continental European music.
Early Years and Service to the Duke of Bedford
Nothing is known about Dunstable’s early life. His earliest works are from around 1410 or 1420, so he may have been born around 1390. Moreover scholars have not been able to determine where he was born.
Dunstable must have received an impressive education, as he became not only a composer but also a mathematician and astronomer. Many composers of his day made their living as members of the clergy, but no one knows for certain whether or not this is true of Dunstable.
Based on Dunstable’s note of ownership in a book, he seems to have been a musician to John, Duke of Bedford. There is some other circumstantial evidence in favor of this connection, such as the fact that the town of Dunstable was part of the territory of the Duke of Bedford. A more substantial connection is that Dunstable was, in 1437, given land in Normandy that had earlier belonged to Bedford.
Although Dunstable’s whereabouts are not known, Bedford’s are. With the death of Henry V in 1422, his nine-month-old son inherited the throne, becoming Henry VI. Bedford was appointed regent of England and France, the latter meaning that he was in charge of the ongoing Hundred Years’ War in France. Bedford visited France frequently between 1422 and 1432 and may have taken Dunstable on his visits to the continent.
If Dunstable did in fact visit France, this would explain how the composer came to be mentioned in French writer Martin le Franc’s poem, Les champions des dames (c. 1440). Le Franc claimed that Dunstable’s French contemporaries Guillaume Du Fay and Gilles Binchois, “took of the English manner, and followed Dunstable, whereby wondrous pleasure makes their music joyous and famous.”
Dunstable may have left the Duke of Bedford’s retinue in 1427, when he first appears in the pay records of the dowager Queen Joan. He served her until at least 1436, earning the largest salary of any of her retainers. In all likelihood, he continued in Queen Joan’s service until 1437, when she died. After that, he found a position with the Duke of Bedford’s younger brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.
There are references to John Dunstable as resident in Cambridgeshire in 1436 and as owner of a Hertfordshire manor in 1449, but it is not certain whether this man was the composer or another man of the same name. If he was in fact a priest, he is more likely to have been the John Dunstable who was canon of Hereford from 1419 to 1440 or another John Dunstable who was a monk at St. Albans.
John Dunstable died on December 24, 1453. He was buried in St. Stephen Wallbrook in London, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. It is not known whether any relatives survived him, but there were some women named Dunstable in the parish.
Bent, Margaret: ‘Dunstable [Dunstable, Dunstapell, Dumstable, Donstaple, etc.], John’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 4 May 2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>
Stell, Judith and Andrew Wathey. “New Light on the Biography of John Dunstable?” Music & Letters 62 (1981): 60-63.