He was a master organist and player of the early keyboard known as the virginal. John Bull was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite musicians. Like her, he knew what he wanted and persisted in pursuing it, but he paid a heavy price.
According to the account of a contemporary, Bull would have gotten a doctorate in music at Oxford, “had he not met with clowns and rigid Puritans that could not endure church music.” And so Bull applied to pursue the degree at Cambridge, which, through an administrative change, later led to the Oxford degree he wanted.
In 1597, on the recommendation of the Queen, he was elected the first Public Reader in music at Gresham College in London. College rules required him and his fellow teachers to give public lectures in Latin and English. But Bull was a fierce proponent of the English language. He resisted the rule and received the Queen’s special permission to give all of his lectures in English.
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The rules at Gresham College also required that its readers be unmarried men, and in 1607, Bull’s independent-mindedness cost him his lucrative job and his lodgings when he “got one Elizabeth Walter with child” and had to marry her.
A commission to build an organ for an Austrian Archduke held some promise for income, and when it started to fall through, he offered to build the organ with his own money. His plan took him to Madrid and, on the way back to England, he was attacked by pirates who took his money, making him unable to fulfill the commission.
Then he fell into a serious scandal, a charge of adultery, and the assertion by the Archbishop of Canterbury that Bull had “more music than honesty and is as famous for the marring of virginity as he is for the fingering of organs and virginals.”
Having no hope for a favorable outcome, one of the country’s great musicians left England in August 1613 and never returned.
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