Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Farmer, John

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FARMER, JOHN (fl. 1591–1601), composer, was a favourite of Edward Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, ‘a great favourer of poets (being one himself) and musitians’ (Wood, MS. Notes in Bodleian). To this nobleman he dedicated the two works which he published on his own responsibility. The first of these is a treatise, now exceedingly rare, entitled ‘Divers and sundrie waies of two parts in one, to the number of fortie, uppon one playn song,’ &c. It was printed by Thomas Este [see East, Thomas] in 1591, and consists of what we should now call a series of examples in two-part counterpoint of different orders. The book seems to have attained considerable success, although its fame must have been speedily eclipsed on the appearance of Morley's ‘Introduction’ six years afterwards; for East gave Farmer an important share in the work of harmonising the psalm-tunes for his ‘Whole Book of Psalms,’ published 1592. The thirteen canticles, hymns, &c., which are there prefixed to the psalms proper are all set by Farmer, as well as five of the psalm-tunes themselves. In 1599 appeared ‘The First Set of English Madrigals, to foure Voyces, newly composed by Iohn Farmer, Practitioner in the art of Musicque. Printed at London in Little Saint Helens by William Barley, the assigne of Thomas Morley, and are to be solde at his shoppe in Gratious Streete, Anno Dom. 1599.’ The part-books contain sixteen madrigals in four parts and one in eight, and the author in his preface to the reader claims to have ‘fitly linkt’ his ‘Musicke to number,’ a characteristic which, according to him, had been up to that time confined to Italian composers. This claim Dr. Burney considered that he failed to establish, and certainly, to judge from the madrigal by which he is best known, his feeling for accentuation cannot have been very strong. In Charles Butler's ‘Principles of Musik,’ 1636, Farmer is spoken of as the ‘author of the Sixteen Madrigals in four and the Seventeen in twice four parts,’ a statement which has led Dr. Rimbault to the conclusion that a second set were at least composed (Biographical Notices prefixed to the Musical Antiquarian Society's edition of The Whole Book of Psalms, 1844). It will be evident, however, that ‘the Seventeen’ stands for ‘the seventeenth,’ and that the set is that above described. Farmer's best-known composition is the madrigal ‘Faire Nimphs, I heard one telling,’ contributed to ‘The Triumphs of Oriana’ in 1601 [see East, Thomas]. The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge contains two madrigals, not included in the collection of 1599, in Immyns's handwriting, ‘You pretty flowers,’ and ‘Thyrsis, thy absence,’ both for four voices, besides copies of some of the other compositions. The British Museum has a complete set of the madrigals of 1599, and a manuscript score of the sixteen madrigals in four parts (Addit. MS. 29996), in the last of which, ‘Take time while time doth last,’ occurs an amusing direction for singing the tenor part, which ‘is made only to Fright & dismaye the singer; By driving od Chrotchets (sic) through sembrifes, brifes, and longs,’ &c. A cantus part of two of the madrigals is contained in Addit. MS. 29382, and the Music School and Christ Church collections at Oxford contain compositions by him.

[Grove's Dict. i. 507; Burney's Hist. iii. 234; Hawkins's Hist. (1853), p. 515; Mus. Antiq. Soc. publications, 1844; Cat. of Fitzwilliam Museum; compositions by Farmer above mentioned.]

J. A. F. M.