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Quam Pulchra Es Dunstable Analysis Essay

Composer John Dunstable (c. 1390 – 1453) was instrumental in exporting and popularizing the English sound, and listening to this lush setting of the Song of Songs, it’s easy to see why la contenance angloise (“that English something-or-other”) really took off among continental composers. “Quam pulchra es” is remarkable for its extreme control of dissonance – Dunstable allows only nine dissonant notes in the whole piece, and these are treated with textbook exactitude. However, despite the prohibition of spicy notes, the piece never succumbs to blandness. Its sonorous, rich textures – once again rife with major thirds – are striking, especially when compared to earlier music that was both more harmonically austere and looser with its treatment of dissonance. But let us not forget the text: this Song of Song setting is essentially an erotic poem, and Dunstable’s sensuous musical language is up to the task. Here’s the translated (from Latin) text:

Male: How beautiful thou art, and how graceful, my dearest in delights. / Your stature I would compare to a palm tree, and your breasts to clusters of grapes. / Your head is like Mount Carmel, your neck just like a tower of ivory.

Female: Come my love, let us go into the field, and see whether the flowers have yielded fruit, and whether the apples of Tyre are in bloom. / There will I give my breasts to you.

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“Before 1400 music seemed relatively bare…” Howard Goodall

Why is this? Because of the use of the open (or what we call Perfect) intervals.  Plainsong chants revolved around the intervals of the Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th and Octaves/Unisons. Often sung in long phrases and to set ‘chants.’

The work below is known as a Motet and in the 14th and 15th centuries, motets tended to be isorhythmic; that is, they employed repeated rhythmic patterns in all voices — not only the cantus firmus — which did not necessarily coincide with repeating melodic patterns. John Dunstable (circa 1390-1453), a leading English composer of the 15th Century, began to colour such works with 3rds and 6ths. His style later included the term contenance angloise meaning in essence, a major-mode tonality with triadic harmony and a smooth handling of dissonance. Dunstable started moving towards a more vertical (and parallel) type of harmony.

After listening to BBC’s Story of Music Podcast Episode No.2 what was significant about Dunstable’s influence on western compositional styles?

Dunstable’s Quam Pulchra Es is featured below and clearly shows a style built on polyphony. “It is conceived as a vehicle for the clear presentation of the text. Accentuation is careful and most syllables fall simultaneously,” as do the notes. You will notice its use of 3rds and 6ths (e.g. first beat of bar 2). Go here for more information on his style and works.

“Much of Dunstaple’s music is in three parts… and although the two lower parts of a three-part piece may be virtually equal in range, the contratenor tends to be higher in tessitura and more rhythmically active than in average contemporary continental pieces.”

What analysis points can you add to the study of this work?


“Dunstable, John.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev.. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 11, 2014,

“Ex.3 (a) Hocket-like, (b) imitative, (c) declamatory and (d) English discant styles in Dunstaple’s polyphony.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 11, 2014,

Margaret Bent. “Dunstaple, John.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 11, 2014,

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