John Bull. Music for voices and viols.

October 23, 2011

At the risk of perpetuating stuff and nonsense about John Bull already on the Internet, I thought I’d summarise what I’ve found in trying to flesh out a recent vocal performance, with viols doubling the sung parts, of one of his Dorick Fantasies with the text “Fraile man”. Playing the music was a delight and I’ve been thinking about the context of the piece.

Years of viol playing haven’t cured me of the notion that John Bull is somehow old-fashioned, stiff and wooden, in his non-keyboard music at least. I have to constantly re-adjust my thinking to take in the fact that William Byrd (1539-1623) belonged to the generation before him and that Bull (1562-1628) was a contemporary of John Dowland (1563-1626). The viol music suggests the opposite.

But judging Bull just by his viol music is to overlook the fact that the good Doctor was essentially a keyboard builder, player and composer – his heart and soul plainly resided in the virginals and organ. Either that or when very late in his life he fled England to the Continent (setting up in Antwerp and dying there), his vocal music back home was destroyed or dispersed or purloined by others, leaving us very little.

Research and recordings have concentrated on his keyboard music. References to vocal music, including music for voices and viols, seem fleeting at best. Either there is not a lot of vocal music by him still extant, or it’s of low quality (which seems surprising given his keyboard brilliance) or it’s problematic research-wise.


John Bull’s viol music  and the Dow Partbooks

Some works for viola da gamba are extant: a fantasia previously attributed to Giovanni Coperario (Meyer #7) which turns out to be one the so-called Dorick Fantasias and set as “Fraile man”; a fantasia for three viols (VdGS E 21) in Musica Britannica Vol.IX no.7.

Of personal interest is the In Nomine a5 in the Dow Partbooks; it’s believed to be a work of his apprenticeship; in modern edition, it is in Musica Britannica vol. IX, #50. The Partbooks (1581-1588) correspond to John Bull’s early years, before 1597. In 1578, he became an apprentice to the Earl of Sussex and was appointed in 1582 to organist at Hereford Cathedral. He was never a vicar-choral, but the new cathedral statutes allowed him to combine the posts of organist and master of the choristers, with his time divided between London and Hereford. Whille little is known of his university career, he graduated in 1586, towards the end of the period of the Dow Partbooks. At this time too, he was appointed a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. So the Partbooks include an example of one of the up-and-coming composers of the period and the biographical context provides some flavour of his early involvement with choral music. 

Also dating from John Bull’s early period is his involvement in the Armada thanksgiving celebrations. Marotti and May report two poems by Queen Elizabeth I being set to music for the occasion. Music for the Queen’s first poem (the Queen’s first-person prayer to God to deliver England from the Spanish) occurs among the anthems composed by Bull. From this, it became often performed at the Royal Chapel. The second poem, thanking the Lord for delivering his people and specifically Elizabeth herself from conquest, was set by William Byrd (British Museum, MS Add.31992, fol.43v, of which we have only the incipit with a score in lute tab.


The Dorick Fantasies

I’ve always found these fantasies dark and sombre, but one of them magically came to life with the addition of voices in “Fraile man, despise the treasures of this life”. Now I find out that ‘Doric’ music was invariably defined as solemn theatre music suitable for great personages. A group of ‘Dorian’ pieces appear in Stainer & Bell’s Keyboard Music I: John Bull, vol, XIV.


Manuscript sources

Bull’s keyboard music is preserved in important keyboard collections of the period: the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, Parthenia and so on.

Peter LeHuray in his Music and the Reformation in England 1549-1660 mentions that before leaving England in 1613, Bull had written more than a dozen devotional songs and anthems to English texts. Five of his anthems, all in verse form, being listed in the Chapel Royal anthem book (c.1630) and a further four verse anthems are in pre-Restoration music manuscripts.

I’ve found references to at least two vocal works in the Christ Church musical manuscripts: The Starre Anthem is in Mus.61-66 and his How Joyful and How Glad is in Mus.56-60. LeHuray mentions how popular the first was, the Epiphany Sunday collect and that there is evidence to suggest that it was originally a motet Deus omnipotens or possibly a string fantasia with that title. John Baldwin, the Windsor musician, copied it into his commonplace book in score format leaving the separate parts untexted with the Latin incipit. In the Thomas Myriell books, dated 1616, it appears as a verse anthem for voices and viols, and in two separate versions, one arranged for six singers and instrumentalists. LeHuray also mentions the popularity of another, based on verses from Psalm 38, In Thee O Lord I put my Trust.

A body of Bull’s work exists from his very late years in Antwerp (copied possibly by Guillaume Messaus, GB-Lbl Add 23623) as well as a German organ tablature MS now in Vienna. Apparently the Antwerp MS contains some hymn verses and alleluias attributed to Bull though their authenticity is problematic, given one being known to be by Tallis.


Vocal music, a capella

John Bull apparently contributed to Sir William Leighton’s Teares and Lamentations of a Sorrowul Soule in 1614, including two settings of Attend unto my Tears and an anthem for Passiontide, In the departure of the Lord. They have been praised as “full of beautiful harmony and expressive modulation” and are available in modern SATB editions. Apparently too, one of his own Latin motets, Deus omnipotens, was copied out by John Baldwin; two anthems by him are included in Barnard’s Church Music of 1641. The Baltimore Consort has recorded a piece of his Christmas music: Eebn kindeken is ons geboren.


John Bulls’ choral music involving viols

A modern edition and at least two recordings have been made of one of John Bull’s verse anthems: Almighty God, Who by the Leading of A Starr (also known as The Starre Anthem). Current is the Leonard Pike edition for Novello Tudor Anthems, available with string parts and viol parts. It is said to be the most popular Jacobean verse anthem, occurring in contemporary sources than any other. Why this should be exactly is a mystery to me. It has been recorded by the group Consortium (their CD entitled Verse Anthems) and by the Consort of Voix humaines on ATMA Classique, the CD entitled Rise, O my soul.



Brown, Alan. “Bull, John” in ODNB. A text of the poem in Bodleian Library MS Rawl. poet.23, p.141, is closer to Rhode’s 1605 version than that of 1637. The MS is a mid-17th century anthology of religious verse copied from the songbooks; while it omits the music, it does identify the composers.

Marotti, Arthur and Steven W. May, “Two Lost Ballads of the Armada Thanksgiving Celebration [with texts and illustration]” in English Literary Renaissance, 41/1 (2011).


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