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Burgundian School

From Academic Kids

The Burgundian School is a term used to denote a group of composers active in the 15th century in what is now eastern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, centered on the court of the Dukes of Burgundy. The main names associated with this school are Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, and Antoine Busnois.

General Characteristics

In late Medieval and early Renaissance Europe, cultural centers tended to move from one place to another due to changing political stability and the presence of either the spiritual or temporal power, for instance the Pope, Anti-pope or the Holy Roman Emperor. In the 14th century, the main centers of musical activity were northern France, Avignon, and Italy, as represented by Guillaume de Machaut and the ars nova, the ars subtilior, and Landini respectively; Avignon had a brief but important cultural flowering because it was the location of the Papacy during the Western Schism. When France was ravaged by the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453), the cultural center migrated farther east, to Dijon and other towns in Burgundy and the Low Countries, known then collectively as the Netherlands. During the reign of the House of Valois, Burgundy was the most powerful and stable political division in western Europe, and added, a bit at a time, Flanders, Brabant, Holland, Luxembourg, Alsace and Lorraine. Especially during the reigns of Philip the Good (1419 – 1467) and Charles the Bold (1467 – 1477), this entire area, loosely known as Burgundy, was a center of musical creativity. This migration of musical culture east from Paris to Burgundy also corresponds with the conventional (and by no means universally accepted) division of music history into Medieval and Renaissance; while Guilluame de Machaut is often considered to be one of the last Medieval composers, Dufay is often considered to be the first significant Renaissance composer.

Of the names associated with the Burgundian School, the most famous was Guillaume Dufay, who was probably the most famous composer in Europe in the 15th century. He wrote music in many of the current forms, and most of it was melodic, singable and memorable (more than half of his sacred music consists of simple harmonizations of plainsong, for example). Musicians from the region came to Burgundy to study and further their own careers as the reputation of the area spread. The Burgundian rulers were not merely patrons of the arts, but took an active part: Charles the Bold himself played the harp, and composed chansons and motets (although none have survived with reliable attribution). The worldly dukes also encouraged the composition of secular music to a degree seen only rarely before in European music history, a characteristic which itself defines the Burgundian epoch as a Renaissance phenomenon.

The most characteristic forms composed by the musicians at the Burgundian courts were the chanson and the rondeau, especially the rondeau in three voices. Typically these were in French, though there are a few in other languages. Most of the composers also wrote sacred music in Latin; this was to remain true for the next several generations. Instrumental music was also cultivated at the Burgundian courts. A peculiarity of the Burgundian instrumental style is that the dukes preferred music for loud instruments (trumpets, tambourins, shawms, bagpipes) and more of this survives than for other current instruments such as the lute or the harp.

Charles the Bold was killed in 1477 in the Battle of Nancy, during one of his attempts to add territory to his empire. After his death, music continued to flourish in the cities and towns of Burgundy, but by the first decade of the 16th century the region was absorbed into the holdings of the Spanish Habsburgs, who were also patrons of music.

The Burgundian School was the first generation of what is sometimes known as the Netherlands School, several generations of composers spanning 150 years who composed in the polyphonic style associated with the mainstream of Renaissance practice. Later generations, which were no longer specifically associated with either the court or the region Burgundy but were interlinked by adjacent geography and by common musical practice, included such names as Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Obrecht, Josquin des Prez, Adrian Willaert and Orlandus Lassus.

Burgundian Composers

References and further reading

  • Craig Wright, "Burgundy", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742
  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0393095304
  • Harold Gleason and Warren Becker, Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Music Literature Outlines Series I). Bloomington, Indiana. Frangipani Press, 1986. ISBN 089917034X
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