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Francis’s voluntary

Francis’s voluntary for 5 July

It is sometimes better not to inquire too much into the lives of composers. Well, artists in general for that matter. Gesualdo was a murderer. Thomas Morley might have been an informer on his fellow Catholics. And John Bull (1562/3-1628) might have been a spy. Certainly he fathered a child out of wedlock (though later married the mother) and subsequently left England under a charge of adultery. Some of the tales about this allegation are eye-watering. Bull was also said to have insulted a minister in front of the congregation. Ah, organists …


Whatever the nature of John Bull’s personal life, though, we do have in his music a remarkably important voice in late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century composition. He is unusual not least because he spent the last years of his career—having fled England for whatever seedy reason—in Holland. And Holland at this point was, musically, vibrant. And that was not least because of the genius of Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck in Amsterdam. Bull, though English, is a uniquely continental composer at this point in the history of the keyboard repertoire in the British Isles.

    Bull’s keyboard music is virtuosic, like Sweelinck’s. It is almost always on the move, with cascades of scales and string-like figurations. Highly imitative—one line copying another—Bull’s work for keyboard is as important as Sweelinck’s and, further south, in Italy, Frescobaldi’s.

    At the end of our Sunday service for Trinity 4 I will play one of John Bull’s shorter works, simply called ‘Fantasia’. It is in G minor and essentially consists of a sequence of bright and brilliant ruminations on a simple set of chords. I don’t think John Bull would have much approved of a digital organ. So for a change this piece will be played on the harpsichord.