Music, School of


Date of this Version



Published in Medieval England: An Encyclopedia, ed. Paul Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Rosenthal, Catherine E. Karkov, Peter M. Lefferts, & Elizabeth Parker McLachlan (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), pp. 254–255.


Copyright © 1998 Paul Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, & Joel T. Rosenthal.


Composer, mathematician, and astronomer. He is the author of over 70 surviving works, including music for masses, offices, Marian devotions, isorhythmic motets, and secular songs. Dunstable (or Dunstaple) stands at the head of an influential group of English composers whose music, beginning in the later 1420s and 1430s, circulated on the Continent, where it had an immense stylistic impact. Fifteenth-century musical commentators recognized Dunstable's importance, and he held a high posthumous reputation for many subsequent generations.

Of Dunstable's biography we know little. The paucity of documentation seems to be due to a career that kept him out of the records of the court, and there is no evidence of a direct association with any cathedral or monastic establishment or the Chapel Royal. He seems to have begun composing around 1415, but he is not represented in the first layer of the Old Hall Manuscript, which was copied by 1421. A few long-known pieces of evidence, along with important recent archival discoveries, suggest that Dunstable was in service to John duke of Bedford before 1427; moved into the household of the duke's stepmother, the dowager Queen Joan, from 1427 until her death in 1437; and at that point entered the familia (household) of her stepson and John's brother, Humphrey duke of Gloucester. Dunstable's relationship with Gloucester is described as that of “serviteur et familier domestique,” an appellation that probably can be extended to his previous relationships with John and Joan, suggesting a high-ranking role in administrative service while not, significantly, a member of the household chapel. Though Dunstable's music is preserved mainly in continental sources, it now appears that his personal presence in France was limited and intermittent. Thus he is not likely to be the central agent in the transmission of English music across the Channel that he was once thought to be.

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