A music detective rediscovers a lost talent

February 25, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

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."

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