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John Bull

John Bull, an early example of the species of virtuoso performer/composer, lived in a time of cultural and political ferment in England. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, he traveled extensively and became acquainted with the musical styles of other European countries, particularly the Netherlands.

At about age 11 Bull became a chorister and, nine years later, organist at Hereford Cathedral. In 1574, when only 22 years old, he was appointed Master of the Choristers at the Cathedral, and in the same year to a similar post at the Chapel Royal of King Charles I in London. His subsequent career might have easily been lived out in the cloistered calm of great churches was it not that Bull was a reckless, argumentative man who courted disaster in both his private and public life.

Bull graduated as Doctor of Music at both Cambridge and Oxford Universities (1589 and 1592). From 1597, when he was a Public Reader at Gresham College, London, he frequently fell foul of the College authorities and in 1607, the year he was married, was forced to resign. However, despite journeys abroad as an organ consultant, he continued as organist at the King's Chapel.

In 1613, Bull was charged with adultery and fled to the Netherlands, claiming religious persecution as the reason for his sudden departure. During his flight from England, many of Bull's manuscripts were lost, though 120 canons, a dozen or so anthems and a large quantity of keyboard music survived.

In 1614, diplomatic pressures from England brought dismissal from a post Bull held in Brussels with Archduke Albert, and in 1617 he moved to Antwerp Cathedral as organist, an appointment he held until his death.

One of the composers of the a golden age of English choral and keyboard music that includes Byrd and Tallis, Bull frequently used the "free-voiced" textures that mark the period of transition from Renaissance to early Baroque, yet his sacred music reflects the contrapuntal complexity of J.S. Bach. His intricate plainsong settings and hexachord fantasias for organ also show a continental influence; the virginal music is more English in character, and includes highly ornamented variations and fantasias. Under Bull's influence, the simple melodic style of popular songs and folk tunes became a starting-point for elaborate excursions into keyboard virtuosity; the anthems and multi-part canons are more direct in feeling, and preserve the formal structures of English masters such as Tallis.