A music detective rediscovers a lost talent


GUILLAUME Du Fay, a French cleric at the Cathedral at Cambrai, is considered by many the greatest composer of the 15th century. Detective work by a musicologist now at University of Maryland Baltimore County has revealed Du Fay had another major creative talent forgotten for five centuries.

Barbara H. Haggh discovered that Du Fay, well-known as a writer of music with two or more melodic lines (polyphony) also composed music with a single melodic line called plainchant, the Catholic Church's chief liturgical music. Specifically, she found on parchment five centuries old anonymous music for an important "Recollection of the Feasts of the Virgin Mary" and traced the 40 plainchants to Du Fay.

Haggh's sleuthing began as a hunch after a chance reading of a small paragraph and footnote grabbed her by the throat in Urbana, Ill., and wouldn't let go. She dropped her doctoral project at the University of Illinois, scrounged up money where she could and pursued her theory in Brussels and Cambrai and Lille in northern France.

Along the way she withstood a couple of scares of potential competitors before her hunch paid off in another little paragraph of a dying French churchman's will.

"I learned Du Fay's plainchant was first sung the fourth Sunday in August in 1458 and was sung for 300 years without most people knowing its origin," Haggh said. "After his death in 1474, the authorship of the Marian feast music was lost. The music has not been heard anywhere until now since probably the 1780s."

Baltimoreans may hear vespers from the long-lost medieval music at 8 p.m. tomorrow in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, 711 Maiden Choice lane, Catonsville, a first in the United States outside of New York. The vespers part comes in a program "Musical Devotions for the Blessed Virgin Mary," Samuel Gordon directing the Maryland Camerata singers.

The UMBC professor believes the tie between Du Fay (about 1398-1474) and the "Recollection" was obscured by later Catholic reforms leading some churches to replace 15th century chants with more traditional ones from the early 9th and 10th centuries. Haggh's research has further showed du Fay's "Recollection" to be original compositions, performed at Cambrai about 12 male singers. Forty-five minutes of solid music, it took all day in services from morning to night.

Her find is considered important because 1) it showed for the first time that a medieval composer wrote both single and multi-melodic line music, opening possibilities for research into works of other composers; 2) it recovered from total obscurity single tone chants by the era's greatest composer, enough for a full day's celebration of Mary's life, and 3) it showed the music was original and familiar to many area churches.

The daughter of a retired Nebraska music professor, Haggh is a former violinist who became emersed in the history of medieval music with her knowledge of French, Flemish and Latin. She is also a Lutheran who turned detective in Catholic records, liturgy and music.

Haggh's story began when she was completing graduate work at Illinois on an unrelated dissertation -- "Music, Liturgy and Ceremony in Brussels: 1350-1500." Medieval church music was her field. Her research in several trips to Europe in the early 1980s made her familiar with church records.

"I was reading a book about a church in Louvain and there was a simple reference without elaboration to a "Recollectio Festorum Beatae Mariae Virginis," by Du Fay and Gilles Carlier, dean of the Cathedral of Cambrai and a text writer.

"There was a footnote about a celebration. This was clearly music for a feast day in Catholic liturgy. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was always prominent. I thought maybe this is plainchant, so important in the church. But it was odd because Du Fay had never been known to compose single-line melodies. Could this be plainchant?"

Haggh the explorer took over. "I had to go back to Europe" and resolve the mystery, though the former Fulbright scholar owed people her dissertation, had run out of grant money and was obligated to the university and others.

"I couldn't tell anyone because they might go [investigate] first," she said, a sign of the intense competition involved in much scholarship. "I took out a student loan, got as many credit cards as I could and borrowed money from my family and went back to Brussels in the summer of 1985."

Her first job was to confirm the Du Fay reference, but she got a quick scare. "I went to the Royal Archives in Brussels and found one archivist was writing an article concerning Du Fay on the same book. But she was writing about the person who introduced Du Fay's music to the Louvain church, not Du Fay himself. Without telling her my exact interest, I traded information with her."

Wealthy people left money to the church in exchange for the scheduling of masses such as the adoration services for Mary, Haggh said. The purpose was so that on judgment day their souls would be released from purgatory between heaven and hell, a practice similar to indulgences, she added.

During one week in Brussels, Haggh found that one such person's will mentioned the "Recollection" by Du Fay and Gilles Carlier. So she had confirmed Du Fay's authorship of the service first read about in Urbana. But was it plainchant music?

Next Haggh went to the nearby French city of Cambrai, home in the 1400s of the bishop and probably because of Du Fay second only to Rome as a Catholic center of music. She couldn't visit the famous cathedral -- it had burned down two centuries ago. In the city's municipal library, she pored over musical and other documents saved from the cathedral.

"I spent a week in Cambrai and looked at all the cathedral manuscripts from the 14th through the 18th centuries -- 100 documents, 200-300 pages a document. I found the "Recollection" score in more than 40 manuscripts. It was plainchant and I found only one version in all the manuscripts. But there was no name on any of them."

So the detective knew: 1. One person had composed the "Recollection of the Feast of the Virgin Mary". 2. The "Recollection" scores she found were plainchant but had no composer's name. 3. Du Fay had been described on wills as the composer of church music of the same name. But was the "Recollection" in the Brussels document the same as the "Recollection" scores in the Cambrai municipal Library? A last link was needed.

Haggh turned to Lille, France, for a look in the city archives for financial and other records of the Cambrai Cathedral. A dying Catholic canon by the name of Michael De Beringhen bequeathed money in 1457 for a new Marian feast. Haggh found one magic paragraph. It said that Guilliaume Du Fay composed "The Recollection," a plainchant, for the Cambrai Cathedral, with Gilles Carlier, as text writer. That was the link.

"I looked across the table at another researcher. I knew her -- she was another 15th century researcher and generally knew my field. I had lunch with her. But I couldn't say anything. I had to keep my secret. That night I called my parents and told them."

Unless successfully challenged, the Haggh revelation is seen as a major medieval music find. And by a graduate student.

Haggh staked her claim in a short paper at the American Musicological Society meeting in Vancouver and another in Bologna, Italy. Those proceedings were just published. The momentum continued. After two centuries of silence, the music was sung and recorded in Hungary and sung again in New York in 1989. Another recording is planned. She is writing a book. Two years ago Haggh began teaching a full load at UMBC.

What does Haggh think of Du Fay? "He was a really brilliant man, a priest, an excellent musician. He corresponded with Popes and royalty. His contemporaries knew of his importance. He had a gift of writing melody and he treated texts sensitively. He was one of the most versatile and original composers of his day."

Barbara Haggh finally finished her dissertation on medieval Brussels in 1988. Guillaume Du Fay made her two years late.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad