John Farmer Biography

(Was an Important Composer)

Born: 1570

Born In: England, United Kingdom

John Farmer was a distinguished English organist and composer, best remembered as one of the composers of the English Madrigal School. He was reputed for his brilliant settings for four voices of the old church psalm tunes. He served as organist and Master of Children at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and as organist of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. Farmer had a brief yet fruitful career and his rich oeuvre includes masterpieces that are noted for their remarkably melodious compositions. Farmer remained instrumental in development of the English madrigal and his musical contributions added value to several English music genres including consort song and English Psalter. He dedicated his only collection of four-part madrigals, First Set of English Madrigals, and his collection of canons, Divers & Sundry Waies of Two Parts in One, to the Number of Fortie upon one Playnsong,  to his patron the Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere. He used clever tone painting in one of his masterpieces, Fair Phyllis I Saw Sitting All Alone. He also contributed to the extremely popular madrigal anthology The Triumphs of Oriana dedicated to Elizabeth I. His The Lord's Prayer, which finds place in Volume 2 of Oxford Choral Classics, is performed widely in several Churches and Cathedrals, mainly in Britain.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 31

Born Country: England

British Men Male Musicians

Died on: 1601

place of death: London, United Kingdom

City: Hertfordshire, England

More Facts

education: English Madrigal School

Childhood & Early Life

John Farmer was born in Leicester, England, in a generous family during the Elizabethan era.

Although exact birth date of the virtuoso remains obscure, noted Irish author, historian, composer and musicologist Grattan Flood, in his article published in 1926, had put forward a date around 1564 to 1565 on the basis of Farmer’s matriculation records. According to sources, Farmer matriculated from the Merton College, a college in Oxford, England, on March 27, 1584.

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Farmer came under the patronage of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a sought-after patron of the arts, as well as a lyric poet and court playwright. Farmer may have lived in the household of de Vere for several years. Farmer’s first publication, Divers & Sundry Waies of Two Parts in One, to the Number of Fortie upon one Playnsong was published in 1591. He was in de Vere’s service at the time and dedicated the work to the latter noting in the dedication de Vere’s love of music. The work comprised of forty canonic pieces written by Farmer and displayed his remarkable contrapuntal skills from such a young age. The work garnered success and caught attention of English printer Thomas East.

In 1592, East brought out a new English Psalter on his own account and probably remained the editor of this work titled The Whole Booke of Psalmes, With Their Wonted Tunes. Farmer and nine other eminent composers including Richard Allison, William Cobbold and Michael Cavendish collaborated with East in the work by harmonising the psalm tunes. Farmer’s The Lord’s Prayer for four voices was first published in this new English Psalter of East and thereafter in the 1621 published metrical psalter The Whole Booke of Psalmes of Thomas Ravenscroft. The sacred composition is performed widely across several Churches and Cathedrals, mainly in the United Kingdom and finds place in Volume 2 of the Oxford University Press published Oxford Choral Classics.

Farmer was inducted as organist and Master of Children at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin on February 1, 1595, and he served the position possibly till 1599 before returning to England. While living in Dublin, he also served as organist of St Patrick's Cathedral.

He wrote many madrigals during his brief career of which several pieces found place in prominent anthologies of the 1590s. One of his noted works include the English madrigal Fair Phyllis also known as Fair Phyllis I saw and Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone, music of which is polyphonic and contains four voices. Occasional imitation is used in this work that was published in 1599. Farmer used the musical technique of tone painting in this work that narrates the story of a person who noticed a young shepherdess sitting alone and feeding her sheep near a hill while other shepherds were unaware of her whereabouts at that time. Her shepherd lover Amyntas wanders through the hills searching for her and when he ultimately finds her, the two started kissing each other out of joy. The madrigal with its impressive lyrics and remarkably pleasing music became a huge success. It later featured in the popular British crime drama television series Midsomer Murders in its September 3, 2006, aired episode titled Death in Chorus.

After relocating to London in 1599, Farmer published his First Set of English Madrigals, his only collection of four-part madrigals, and dedicated the work once again to de Vere. According to some critics, the work showcases a combination of two different styles of madrigals, the light, quick-moving and easily singable style of English composer, music theorist, organist and singer of the Renaissance Thomas Morley, considered a leading member of the English Madrigal School; and the style of two other composers of the English Madrigal School, Thomas Weelkes and John Wilbye, who wrote madrigals in a more serious or sombre vein.

Farmer contributed the piece Fair Nymphs in the book of English madrigals titled The Triumphs of Oriana that was compiled and published in 1601 by Morley. The first edition of the book comprise of 25 pieces contributed by 23 composers. While Farmer and 20 other composers contributed one piece each, Morley and Ellis Gibbons composed two madrigals each. The madrigal anthology that became very popular was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I and all the pieces in the collection include the couplet Thus sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: long live fair Oriana at the end. Other noted works of Farmer includes A Little Pretty Bonny Lass and Take Time While Time Doth Last.

Personal Life & Legacy

There is hardly any information available on personal life of Farmer. Moreover his 1601 collaboration with Morley on The Triumphs of Oriana is the last known work and information available about the virtuoso as after such time he just disappeared from the historical records without a trace.

English composer, string player and music editor Thomas Simpson’s first collection of music, Opusculum neuwer Pavanen, published in 1610 contained his arrangements of works by several composers including that of Farmer.

Giles Farnaby, an English composer and virginalist and one of the contemporaries of Farmer, dedicated a pavan to him that finds place as Farmer's Paven (no. CCLXXXVII) in the 17th-century English manuscript titled Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Published in 1894–99, this manuscript collection comprise of 297 pieces for keyboard composed by some of the imminent composers of the period and forms a main source of keyboard music from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods in Britain. It was bequeathed to the University of Cambridge by Viscount Fitzwilliam in 1816 and is presently housed in the art and antiquities museum of the university called the Fitzwilliam Museum

See the events in life of John Farmer in Chronological Order

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