Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dunstable, John

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

DUNSTABLE, JOHN (d. 1453), musician and mathematician, was a native of Dunstable in Bedfordshire. His name is spelt by early writers ‘Dunstaple.’ Nothing is known of his life, but he was famous all over Europe as one of the earliest musicians who laid the foundations of the great schools of the sixteenth century. One of the earliest notices of him occurs in the ‘Proportionale’ of Johannes Tinctoris (1445–1511). The writer, speaking from hearsay, says that the origin of music took place in England, where Dunstable was the chief musician. This statement was copied and exaggerated by later writers until it came to be said that Dunstable ‘invented’ counterpoint, a manifest absurdity. The claims of the English musician have been much contested by continental writers; but the existence of an English school of music, extraordinarily advanced for its time, is proved by the celebrated ‘rota’ or round, ‘Sumer is y-cumen in,’ which dates back even a century before Dunstable's time. His priority in point of time to the great Flemish and Burgundian composers, Binchois and Dufay, has been vindicated by the recent discovery that the former died at Lille in 1460, and the latter at Cambrai in 1474, while Dunstable's death took place in 1453. His fame was so widespread that a MS. in the Escorial, written at Seville in 1480, mentions his name, and examples of his music are still to be seen at Rome, Bologna, and Dijon. In England, probably owing to the wars of the Roses, which seem to have crushed the school of which he was the chief, his name was soon forgotten. He is known to have written a treatise, but this appears to be completely lost; his name does not occur in Bale's ‘Scriptores Britanniæ,’ and Fuller, who prints two epitaphs on him, alludes to him contemptuously as ‘an astrologian, a mathematician, a musitian, and what not.’ He died in 1453, and was buried in St. Stephen's, Walbrook, where his Latin epitaph was to be seen in Stow's time, engraved on ‘two faire plated stones in the chancell, each by other.’ A manuscript collection of longitudes and latitudes, written in April 1438 by Dunstable, is in the Bodleian Library; the British Museum and Lambeth libraries also contain examples of his music.

[Appendix to Grove's Dict. of Music, iv. 619; Coussemaker's Scriptores, iii. 31, 411, iv. 154; Ambros's Geschichte der Musik, ii. 470–1; Monatshefte für Musikgeschichte, 1884, p. 26; J. F. Riano's Notes on Early Spanish Music; Revue de la Musique Religieuse, 1847, p. 244; M. Morelot's De la Musique au XVe Siècle; Addit. MSS. 10336, 31922; Stow's Survey, 1633, p. 245; Weever's Funerall Monuments, 1631.]

W. B. S.