John Bull

c.1562 1628

John Bull



John Bull was a 15th and 16th century English composer, organist, virginalist and organ builder. He was known as a virtuoso keyboardist and excellent composer during his lifetime. His life tells a story of poverty, crime and even an unfortunate encounter with pirates.

Bull’s exact birthdate is unknown, but has most accurately been deduced to be around the year 1562, based on a portrait at Oxford. He became active in music as a boy, having entered the choir at Hereford Cathedral in 1573. There he was under the supervision of organist John Hodges. The following year Bull most likely joined the Children of the Chapel Royal in London, where he received instruction from John Blitheman, while William Hunnis was the Master of the Children. There is also evidence that Bull later studied withWilliam Byrd.

In 1578, Bull was appointed as apprentice to the Lord Chamberlain, one of the patrons of the Children. Around this time he was also recommended to fill the organist position at Hereford Cathedral and was finally appointed in 1582. The following year he became the master of the choristers, which forced him to split his time between London and Hereford, causing numerous problems due to frequent absences. He was eventually suspended as organist and then dismissed. In 1586 Bull became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, leading to an increase in his reputation.

It is known that Bull studied at the university, but the details are vague.  There is one reference to him having attended King’s College, Cambridge. His Bachelor of Music is from Oxford, where he was not able to immediately obtain his doctorate as he came into contact with ‘Clownes & rigid Puritans that could not endure Church music.’ He then went to Cambridge for his doctorate, later receiving his Oxford doctorate by incorporation.

Unfortunately for Bull, Elizabeth eliminated free university education for the Children of the Chapel Royal and rarely increased the wages of the employees. Bull petitioned on several occasions and finally received a very small gift so that ‘his great poverty, which altogether hindereth his studies, shall be relieved.’

After his election for Public Reader in music at Gresham College, London in 1597, Bull’s financial situation improved greatly. Readers in various subjects were hired and were obliged to obey the ordinances of a committee which included the Mercers Company. Complications soon arose, as Sir Thomas Gresham’s stepson was still occupying the room that was assigned to Bull at Gresham House. Bull arranged for a mason and went to the room with several friends, including the City Chamberlain, and broke down a wall to force entry into the room. A legal fight ensued, but the result is unknown.

In addition, Bull refused to sign the ordinances and his pay was withheld. After a period of sickness, in which he was replaced by Thomas Byrd, he returned to Gresham College. During his absence he supported himself by performing at festivals and receptions for royal visitors.

In 1607 Bull became associated with the Merchant Taylors Company, giving him the opportunity to perform for the King and Prince Henry. The same year he was forced to resign from Gresham College due to having fathered a child out of wedlock with Elizabeth Walker, who he was forced to marry.

Thrust back into poverty, Bull became active again as an organ builder. In 1909-1910 Bull was involved with the Austrian Archduke Albert, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, who wanted to buy an organ in England. Bull needed half of the money up-front to buy the supplies for the organ, but was first required to present a guarantor, which he could not do. Instead he went to Madrid and planned to build the organ with his own resources. On his return home he was attacked by pirates who stole all his money. The archduke finally hired another organ builder.

Bull worked with Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth, to educate them in music. For the princess and her future husband, prince Friedrich, he dedicated his first printed volume of virginal music,Parthenia, or The Maydenhead (c1612-1613). For their wedding he composed the anthemGod the father, God the son, which is now lost.

Bull became involved in yet another scandal and was charged with adultery in the Court of High Commission. He also created trouble at a church when, ‘as the minister was entering into service, in the sight of the congregation Bull pulled him violently out of his seat, and despitefully intreated him’.

After the Archbishop of Canterbury stated, ‘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 pre-emptively fled the country and went to the southern Netherlands where he was employed by Archduke Albert. Though English envoy William Trumbull knew of his arrival and employment he kept this to himself for a few months. Upon James I’s discovery that his organist had fled the country he exploded with anger and Bull was forced to exit the service of the Archduke. Again poor, he became a cathedral organist and organ consultant.

Bull’s keyboard music forms the most important part of his output. It is, however, difficult to determine which pieces authentically belong to him. His keyboard works include many fantasias, the In Nomine works and his Doric keyboard preludes. Though Doric music is solemn theatre music, Bull’s pieces in this style are not sombre, with exception of K57 and K58. His Hexachord Fantasia K17 is also quite impressive and includes all possible transpositions of the hexachord. His most impressive works include his Quadran settings, Walsingham, The King’s Hunt and Bull’s Goodnight. Bull also made many arrangements or elaborations on existing dances. Bull’s pavans and galliards were his most appreciated works. These include theVaulting galliard K90, Regina Galliard K132 and the Prince’s Galliard, which was parodied by Byrd.

Bull composed just a small number of anthems, of which only four survive. He also composed a set of songs for Sir William Leighton’sTeares or Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soule(1614).

The majority of Bull’s music was composed while in England. His time in Brussels and Antwerp only accounts for a very small number of works.

Images courtesy of Charles Cole, and public domain