John Bull

John Bull

born in 1562 in Somerset, England, United Kingdom

died in March 1628 in Antwerpen, Flandern, Belgium

John Bull (composer)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
John Bull (1562 or 1563 15 March 1628) was an English composer, musician and organ builder. He was a renowned keyboard performer of the virginalist school and most of his compositions were written for this medium.


Bull's place of birth is shrouded in uncertainty. In an article published in 1952, Thurston Dart presumed that Bull's family originated in Somerset, where it is possible the composer was born. It was the 17th century antiquarian Anthony Wood who first proposed that he was related to the Bull family of Peglich, Somerset, but in 1959 Dart wrote that Bull was probably the son of a London goldsmith.[1] Then, in the second edition of his Calendar of the Life of John Bull, Dart proposed Hereford as a third possibility.[2] More recent research by Susi Jeans suggests that Bull was born in the Radnorshire parish of Old Radnor within the diocese of Hereford, although no birth records have yet been discovered. Bull's appointment as organist of Hereford Cathedral in 1582 lends credence to this diocese being his place of birth: it was customary at this time for organists to return to their home cathedrals after training in London (cf: Thomas Morley).

In 1573 he joined the choir at Hereford cathedral, and the next year joined the Children of the Chapel Royal in London, where he studied with John Blitheman and William Hunnis; in addition to singing he learned to play the organ at this time. After being appointed to the Merchant Taylor's Company in 157778, Bull received his first appointment as organist of Hereford Cathedral in 1582, and then became Master of the Children there.

In 1586 he received his degree from Oxford, and he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal that same year. In 1591, following the death of John Blitheman, he became organist at the Chapel Royal; in 1592 he received his doctorate from Oxford, and in 1596 he became the first professor of music at Gresham College on the recommendation of Queen Elizabeth who admired him greatly. There is some evidence that she sent Bull on espionage missions: his eighteen-month trip to the continent in 1601-2, ostensibly for reasons of health, has never been satisfactorily explained, and his whereabouts there, apart from a visit to Brussels, remain a mystery.[3][4] On the death of Elizabeth, he entered into the service of King James. Throughout this time he was establishing a reputation for himself as a skilled composer, keyboard performer and improviser.

However, in addition to his virtuosity as a keyboard performer and composer, Bull was also skilled at getting into trouble. In 1597 his appointment to Gresham College required him to obey the committees ordinances, lodge at Gresham House, and give an inaugural lecture during the second week of June in the presence of the mayor, the aldermen, the Bishop of London and the master and warden of the Mercers Company. Fearful of losing his readership because his assigned rooms were still occupied by Greshams stepson, William Reade, he forced an entry to the rooms by engaging a mason to help him break down a wall, which led to an action against Bull in Star Chamber. The outcome of this case is not known. Ten years later, he was forced to leave his post at Gresham College on 20 December 1607, after he fathered a child pre-maritally with an Elizabeth Walter, thus losing his best source of income as well as his quarters.[5] Even though he filed a petition for a marriage licence two days after he lost his job, he never returned to the college. He married Elizabeth Walter in 1607, by whom he had a daughter.

Just after publishing seven keyboard pieces in Parthenia, Bull left England for good, secretly and with great haste in October 1613, fleeing the wrath of George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury and King James I himself; the charge this time was adultery. William Trumbull, the English envoy in the Low Countries, after first attempting to cover for him but later fearing for his own position if he continued to do so wrote to the King in early 1614,

The Archbishop of Canterbury had said of him the previous year: the man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals.

Bull remained in Flanders, where it seems he stayed out of trouble. In 1615 Antwerp Cathedral appointed him as assistant organist, and as principal organist in 1617. Bull wrote a series of letters while in Flanders, including one to the mayor of Antwerp, claiming that the reason he left England was to escape religious persecution. Although there is no evidence that he was a Catholic, he wrote, somewhat ambiguously

He seems to have been believed, for he was never extradited back to England in spite of Trumbull's complaining to the Archduke. While in Antwerp he most probably met Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the most influential keyboard composer of the age.

In the 1620s he continued his career as an organist, organ builder and consultant. He died in Antwerp on 15 March 1628 and was buried in the cemetery next to the cathedral.


Bull was one of the most famous composers of keyboard music of the early 17th century, exceeded only by Sweelinck in the Netherlands, Frescobaldi in Italy, and, some would say, by his countryman and elder, the celebrated William Byrd. He left many compositions for keyboard, some of which were collected in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

His first (and only) publication, in 1612 or 1613, was a contribution of seven pieces forming part of a collection of virginal music entitled Parthenia, or the Maydenhead of the First Musicke That Ever Was Printed for the Virginalls, dedicated to the 15-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who was his student, on the occasion of her betrothal to Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine. The other contributors to Parthenia were Bull's contemporaries William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, among the most famous composers of the age. Bull also wrote an anthem, God the father, God the son, for the wedding in 1613 of the princess and the Elector Palatine.

In addition to his keyboard compositions, he wrote verse anthems, canons and other works.

His 5 part anthem Almighty God, which by the Leading of a Star, known colloquially as the Star Anthem, was the most popular Jacobean verse anthem, occurring in more contemporary sources than any other.

Much of his music was lost when he fled England; some was destroyed, and some was stolen by other composers, though occasionally such misattributions can be corrected today based on stylistic grounds. One of the most unusual collections of music from the period is his book of 120 canons, an astonishing display of contrapuntal skill worthy of Ockeghem or J.S. Bach. Of the 120 canons, 116 are based on the Miserere. Techniques employed to transform the simple theme include diminution, augmentation, retrograde and mixed time signatures. Some of his music in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is of a lighter character and uses whimsical titles: "A Battle and No Battle," "Bonny Peg of Ramsey," "The King's Hunt," and "Bull's Good-Night."

He is sometimes credited with the composition of God Save the King, the British national anthem.

See also

  • List of Gresham Professors of Music


  1. Thurston Dart: Search for the Real John Bull. New York Times, 1 November 1959, sec. 2, p.1
  2. John Bull: Keyboard Music. Calendar of the Life of John Bull, compiled by Thurston Dart, vol I, p. xxi.
  3. Leigh Henry, pp.153170.
  4. Walker Cunningham, p.3
  5. Jeans and Neighbour 2001, §2.

References and further reading

Wikisource has original 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica text related to: Bull, John

  • Susi Jeans, "John Bull". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vols. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. Revised by Nicolas Slonimsky. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993. ISBN 0-02-872416-X
  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4
  • Manfred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1947. ISBN 0-393-09745-5
  • Leigh Henry, Dr John Bull: 1562-1628. [London]: Herbert Joseph Ltd, in association with the Globe-Mermaid Association, 1937. Reprinted, Da Capo Press Music Reprint Series. New York: Da Capo Press, 1968.
  • Walker Cunningham, The Keyboard Music of John Bull. Studies in Musicology 71. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8357-1466-7
  • John Bull: Keyboard Music. Edited by John Steele & Francis Cameron, with additional material by Thurston Dart. Stainer & Bell, London 1967. 2 vols.
  • Susi Jeans and Oliver W. Neighbour, "Bull [Boul, Bul, Bol], John [Jan] [Bouville, Bonville, Jean]". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. 29 vols. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001.

External links

  • Free scores by John Bull in the International Music Score Library Project
  • Free scores by John Bull (composer) in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
This page was last modified 11.02.2014 00:55:58

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