The Madrigal Composer John Farmer: Part Three of No. 37 of 100 Reasons Why the Earl of Oxford = “Shakespeare”

To shallow rivers, to whose falls/ Melodious birds sing madrigals!

– Song in The Merry Wives of Windsor (3.1) by Shakespeare

The celebrated madrigalist John Farmer dedicated his most important work, The First Set of English Madrigals of 1599, to “my very good Lord and Master, Edward Devere Earle of Oxenford,” praising his “judgment in Musicke” and declaring that “using this science as a recreation, your Lordship have over-gone most of them that make it a profession.”

John Farmer (c. 1570 - 1601)

This is high praise indeed for Oxford, to whom Farmer had also dedicated his previous work, Plainsong Diverse & Sundry of 1591, telling the earl he presented it to him because he knew “your Lordship’s great affection to this noble science.”

“Nothing is more astonishing in the whole history of music than the story of the English school of madrigal composers,” writes Dr. Michael Delahoyde of Washington State University, noting that the adapter of a key publication First Sett of Italian Madrigals Englished in 1590 was Thomas Watson, who had dedicated his 100-sonnet sequence Hekatompathia: or Passionate Century of Love in 1582 to Edward de Vere, his patron.

Inserted in that song-book [title page at left] are “two excellent Madrigalls of Master William Byrd, composed after the Italian vaine, at the request of the sayd Thomas Watson.”   So we have Oxford connected personally and professionally to Farmer, Byrd and Watson, not to mention his company of musicians and the fact that his many youthful poems turn out to be lyrics for songs.  It would appear that he was a driving force, or even the driving force, behind the sudden rise of the entire English Madrigal School.

Farmer has the distinction of composing one of the most popular and fun pieces of the period, the madrigal Fair Phyliss I Saw Sitting All Alone, telling the story of the shepherdess Phyllis and her lover, who searches the hills before finding her:

What does all this have to do with Oxford as Shakespeare?  Well, the point is that he was an expert in the musical field, just as “Shakespeare” shows himself to be — although orthodox scholars, well aware that the man William Shakspere of Stratford was no such expert, tend to play down or ignore the actual contents of “Shakespeare” works in that regard.  The only way to maintain that the Stratford man was the Greatest Writer of the English Language is to keep “dumbing down” the works themselves!

Elizabethan Musical Instruments

Well, he was an expert in the musical field, as the Earl of Oxford was an expert.  In Shakespeare’s England (1916) we are given the honest truth that “in no author are musical allusions more frequent than in Shakespeare,” whose musical terms include:

Accord, Air, Anthem, A-re, Bagpipe, Bass, Base, Bass viol, Bear a part, Breast, Broken, Broken Music, Burden (Burthen), Cadence, Carol, Catch, Chant, Chittern (Cithern), Clef, Cliff, Close, Compass, Concent, Concert, Consort, Concord, Cornet, Crotchet, Cymbols, Dead March, Descant, Diapason, Discord, Division, Drone, Drum, D-sol-re, Dulcimer, Ear, E-la-mi, Fa, False, Fancy, Fiddle, Fiddler, Fiddlestick, Fife, Fingering, Fit, Flat, Flute, Fret, Gamut, Good-night, Govern, Government, Ground, Harmony, Harp, Hautboy, Holding, Hornpipe, Hymn, Instrument, Jack, Jar, Kettle(drum), Key, Knock it, La, Lesson, Lute, Madrigal, March, Mean, Measure, Mi, Minim, Mode, Mood, Music, Musician, Noise, Note, Organ-pipe, Part, Peg, Pipe, Plain-song, Play, Point, Prick-song, Proportion, Psaltery, Re, Rebeck, Record, Recorder, Reed-voice, Relish, Rest, Round, Sackbut, Scale, Sennet, Set, Sharp, Singing-man, Sol, Sol-fa, Soundpost, Speak, Still Music, Stop, Strain, String, Strung, Tabor, Tabourine, Three-man-song, Time, Tongs, Touch, Treble, Triplex, Troll, Trump, Trumpet, Tucket, Tune (melody), Tune (to adust tone), Ut, Ventages, Viol, Viol da gamba, Virginals, Virginalling, Wind, Wind up, Wrest… 

All these terms, and more, appear in the Shakespeare works. They are often technical, always accurate.  They come bursting freely and spontaneously from the pen of the poet-dramatist, flowing from his very being, and never inserted as information from research.  The terms come cascading forth not to instruct or impress or do anything other than lend greater power, beauty, humor and meaning to a character’s speech of the moment, mostly by way of metaphor: “What, to make thee an instrument and play false strains upon thee?  Not to be endured!”As You Like It (4.3)

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent series of articles, Hank. Also relevant is the evidence presented by Katherine Chiljan several years ago demonstrating that the Earl of Oxford employed Robert Hales, Queen Elizabeth’s most beloved vocalist.

    • Glad you reminded me, Earl. I have Katherine’s article in my file and clean forgot to include her wonderful discovery that Oxford employed “the esteemed Elizabethan singer and lute player” Robert Hales, who played the lute at the Queen’s funeral. The document indicating Oxford’s annuity of 20 pounds to Hales is dated March 10, 1579 (or 1580 new style). In the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter of Fall 2005, Katherine also includes a piece about a relationship between Oxford, Hale and “Twelfth Night”, written by Oxford circa 1580 and apparently played at Court in January 1601 with Hales singing in a version revised for the event. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks again, Hank. Farmer’s 1599 dedication to de Vere is especially moving and eloquent. I assume the “canker worm of forgetfulness” alludes to de Vere’s notoriety and diminished status once he no longer had the funds with which to patronize writers and composers. Sadly, it also describes the role that Stratfordians continue to play in “forgetting” de Vere’s astonishing literary creations.

    Let me quote from Farmer’s dedication–

    “There is a canker worme that breedeth in many mindes, feeding only upon forgetfulness, and bringing forth no birth but ingratitude. To show that I have not been bitten with that monster– for wormes prove monsters in this age, which yet never any Painter could counterfeit to expresse the ugliness, nor any Poet describe to decipher the height of their illness– I have presumed to tender these Madrigales only as remembrances of my service and witnesses of your Lordship’s liberal hand, by which I have so long lived, and from your Honorable minde that so much have loved all liberal Sciences.”

    • Yes, Richard, and with your understanding of those lines, they are indeed moving. As you suggest, Farmer was echoing something that remains a “canker worme” to this day. Thanks for point this out.

  3. Agree with the above, and the writing copied below:
    “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!/ Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music/ Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night/ Become the touches of sweet harmony./ Sit, Jessica: look, how the floor of heaven/ Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:/ There’s not the smallest orb which you behold’st/ But in his motion like an angel sings,/ Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;/ Such harmony is in immortal souls;/ But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay/ Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”

    it is so touching that Shakespeare wrote this just when William Wayte was seeking sureties of the peace against his committing mortal violence upon Wayte and three others. What a guy. Talk about multi-tasking. Unbelievable really.

  4. Any evidence that DeVere himself composed music? I have wondered if he might have done so using John Farmer’s name on occasion. There are some unusual harmonies and word/music juxtapositions, not to mention some extremely personal references in madrigal lyrics . . . (I think Oxford used a lot of names!)

  5. ” The tongues of dying men force attention, like deep harmony” is one of WS’s strongest musical quotations, and could only be spoken by someone who knew the power of music intimately, by experience and with a trained ear.


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