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.