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Dr. Bull’s Musical Alchemy


The intemperate genius John Bull was born in either 1562 or 1563. Let’s choose the later of these two possibilities and duly celebrate 2013 as Bull’s 450th.

In contrast to the archetypal Englishman John Bull, a figure invented in the early 18th-century and always pictured in breeches barely up to the task of supporting his imposing beef-fed belly, the Elizabethan master of the same name was lean, even ascetic, his later life lived in exile and poverty.

Born in Hereford, Bull was a chorister in the cathedral there by the age of ten, but his talent seems quickly to have attracted attention in London, and by 1574 he was listed among the Children of the Chapel Royal. His gifts gained him powerful patrons, but it was not only these connections, but also native skill honed in in the rich polyphonic traditions of England that brought him to the top of English musical life. At the organ he was a student of the adventurous John Blitheman and later of the towering figure of the period in the realms of both keyboard music and vocal polyphony, William Byrd. Like Bull, Byrd was a Catholic, but one of unimpeachable constancy, who, in spite of the vicissitudes of non-conformity—or recusancy, as it was called in England—never left his faith nor the Protestant island.

Though Bull was slender of figure, a hunger not for food, but for knowledge is to be seen in the portrait of him painted in 1589 and now hanging in the Music Faculty at Oxford. It was at that university that Bull initially sought his doctorate in music, though he finally gained the degree from Cambridge instead. A contemporary claimed that Bull was thwarted in his scholarly progress at Oxford by the “Clownes and rigid Puritans who could not endure Church music.”

The Oxford portrait can be seen on the cover of the first volume of a CD collection devoted to Bull’s complete keyboard works, a recording project spearhead by Peter Watchorn —one of the leading harpsichordists of our own time and also founder of the outstanding Musica Omnia label. In the picture Bull looks austerely cerebral, but social and even sensual aspiration is evident in the finely embroidered color and carefully managed facial hair. The hourglass and skull with a bone in its grim maw in the corner of the painting is an alchemical image of the triumph of the hermetic arts over death. Like many other musicians and music theorists of the period, including his fellow Oxford student Robert Fludd, Bull seems to have believed that music shared fundamental secrets with alchemy. It is not unlikely that the brilliant keyboard player was also an alchemical practitioner. The experimental combinations of Bull’s counterpoint, his daring chromatic investigations, and his bold mixing of metrical proportions all show much more than merely a superficial kinship between his music and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.

With the prestigious music degree in hand, Dr. Bull, as he styled himself, became the first Public Reader in Music (we’d now call him a professor) at Gresham College, London in 1597. The position was only for bachelors, and when Bull was forced to marry a woman whom he’d 210px-Johnbullcomposermade pregnant he lost the post, though he remained a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and the organist to King James I. Various trips to the continent suggest diplomatic missions and intrigues. One famous anecdote has Bull in St. Omer in what was then Flanders; when challenged by a local musician to add a single part to a motet,  Bull adds not one, but forty new lines in an astounding demonstration of craft and creativity.

But Bull was forced to flee England in 1613, making 2013 another anniversary year, one that could be commemorated by exiles of conscience everywhere if not for the inconvenient truth that Bull’s claims of religious persecution were actually a cover for his own scandalous behavior.  The initial charge was adultery, but when Bull was called into a London church to account for himself he accosted the minister. An eye-witness reported that “In the sight of the congregation Bull pulled him violently out of his seat, and despitefully intreated him.”  As one of the most important church musicians of his day, Bull’s behavior attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott, who condemned the adulterer in language that makes Bull’s keyboard playing seem itself lewd: “The man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring virginity as he is for fingering of organ and virginals.” The virginal is a rectangular harpsichord, relatively compact in size but, when properly constructed, capable of producing a robust sound.  One etymology has it that the instrument’s name derived from the fact that many young women played the instrument in England and the Low Countries, as can be seen in plenty of Dutch paintings of the 17th century.

The Archbishop was not the first moralist to suggest that music could enflame those with only a loose hold on their lusts. Given Bull’s enormous talent and the sometimes seething sensuality to be heard in his music, one can well imagine how his prowess on organs and virginals led his fingers to leap from the keyboard to the corset of a lady either listening to him play or whom who was charged with instructing. Bull’s music is also highly intellectual, yet the intense eyes seen in his portrait seem to confirm that such cerebral pursuits do not trump the sensual ones. His surviving keyboard works are full of charged, astonishing harmonies and bursts of virtuosity that make one think of fingers flying over the virginals, if not the virgins. Music-fueled or not, Bull’s urges ultimately led to his flight across the North Sea, trumpeting the grounds for his escape as pious loyalty to Catholicism.

This mendacity might make one question the truthfulness of Bull’s keyboard works that attempt to express the texture of his feelings and desires: My Grief; My Selfe; Bull’s Goodnight.  These and other autobiographical pieces are presented on volume one of the Complete Works for Keyboard of John Bull issued by Musica Omnia in 2010. A generous spirit, Watchorn shares this pair of CDs with the young Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. Both are exacting players thoroughly equipped to explore the emotional and technical range of Bull’s music, from the exuberant to the bereft. From these latter regions of shadows and sadness, it is Watchorn who presents the Melancholy Pavan and its companion Galliard, which move between poised contemplation and overly effusive outbursts. The piece’s chromatic searchings and wistful lingerings evoke the extremes of mood of the melancholic temperament, the convincing representation of which was a prized artistic achievement in Elizabethan England.

In more optimistic pieces like Lord Lumley’s Pavan and the Fantastic Pavan and Galliard, the daunting precision of Watchorn’s playing, the bite of his rolled chords, the glinting facets of his passagework, and the snap, snarl, and sweetness of his Flemish-style harpsichord all buttress the rhetorical power of his vivid performance of this fascinating, difficult, and richly rewarding repertoire. There are endless surprises, from startling dramatic turns to self-searching soliloquys. Esfahani gives us Bull’s landmark treatment of the popular song Walsingham. Bull extends the set to thirty thrilling variations, making it a compact forerunner of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in scope, imagination, and difficulty. Bull’s Walsingham includes many novelties: dizzying metrical relationships, eccentric repeated-notes, and even crossed hands. Esfahani springs over these demands with a spirited nonchalance worthy of Bull himself.

Bull had developed a friendship with his fellow Catholic and student of Byrd, Peter Philips in England, before Philips himself had left the country for good in the early 1590s. In 1613 Bull joined Philips as one of the three organists of the vice-regal chapel in Brussels. But after the interventions of the English King, James I, aggrieved at the flight of his renowned organist, Bull was removed from his post by Archduke Albert, Viceroy of the Spanish Netherlands. Bull was then forced to live from the welfare provided by the city of Antwerp, remaining in dire financial straits there until his appointment as cathedral organist in 1617. Bull augmented his meager income as an organ expert and would-be builder, even though his record in those pursuits had also been checkered.  While Bull was still in England his own teacher William Byrd had pronounced an instrument of Bull’s commissioned by Archduke Albert not to be worth the thousand pounds sterling Bull wanted for it. It is little wonder, then, that Albert would later fire Bull under pressure from the English King once further reports of Bull’s turpitude made their way to the Brussels court. Bull remained organist at Antwerp Cathedral until he died there in exile in 1628.

Bull maintained until the end that it was his faith that had driven him from his homeland. Whether his musical illuminations of the dark corners of his own psyche and his explorations of the infinite possibilities of the keyboard were powered by lies or truth—or both—they are as visionary and vigorous now in the digital alchemy of Watchorn and Esfahani’s recordings as they were in the intimate chambers of Elizabethan and Jacobean London and under the echoing vaults of Antwerp’s great cathedral.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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