Music History is Thrilling!

English Madrigal and John Farmer


Musica transalpina
(“Music from beyond the Alps”) The first publication of Italian madrigals, completed in 1588 in England, which contains “Englished” madrigals. The Italian text had been translated into English for this collection
English madrigal
The English adopted the madrigal just as Shakespeare had adopted the sonnet. The English made their own madrigals with simpler texts, humorous topics and nonsense syllables such as “fa la la” for refrain text
Nonsense syllables
An adaption that the English made to the Italian madrigal when assimilating the genre to Britain was to add nonsense syllables such as “fa la la”

John Farmer (fl. 1591-1601)

Farmer was active in Dublin at a church where he was employed as master of the choir boys. From there he relocated to London where he published his only collection of four part English madrigals. As a composer, Farmer applied word painting with liberty and preferred pastoral themes. His madrigals have the underlying meter that many English madrigals had and his lines of contrapuntal texture which overlap in a playful manner.

“Fair Phyllis I saw Sitting all Alone”

This charming English madrigal was written in 1599 for four voices and was about a shepherdess who wanders from the other shepherds and found by her lover in joy expressed by a tumble of kisses. The underlying meter and cadences on the weak beat are characteristic of the English madrigal. The word painting applied was a feature adopted from the Italian madrigal. The texture varies throughout, facilitating word painting. The opening line “Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone” is sung in a solo voice, illustrating Phyllis in her solitude. The next line “Feeding her flock” is sung in homophonic texture by all four voices, illustrating the size of her flock. The line “up and down” is sung in an imitative texture which leaps up and down in register, mirroring the meaning of the words. The line “Fell a kissing” gaily leaps up and down in register, illustrating the lovers’ joy in finding each other.

All information on this article is derived from: Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney. The Enjoyment of Music, Eight Edition, Standard Version, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999. Janet Lopinski, Joe Ringhofer, and Peteris Zarins. Exploring Music History, A Guided Approach, Mississauga, Ontario: Frederick Harris Music Co., Limited
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6 comments (show) ▼


Hi Shanon,

I just wanted to say thanks for creating such a useful website! Are you planning to take Grade 5 history and will you be making a site for that too?

Have you done any other blogs for other RCM exams?



Hi Mary,

Thanks for your kind comment. I’m glad that you find this blog useful! I am planning on taking Grade 5 history and when I do I will absolutely make a website for that as well. I may start working on that soon… I’m considering moving this whole blog over to my own personal domain specifically for studying for RCM examinations. Musicians just don’t tend to use the internet, do they? To answer your question, no, I have not yet done any other blogs for other RCM exams but stay posted as I hope to in the future.

Thanks a lot! I’m glad you found this useful!


it is 2011 and u still have not made a web for history 5… i hope u finish it soon to help me in future troubles… ^^


Hi! I just wanted to say that I really love your website. There’s just this one inconsistency. I do believe that Fair Phyllis was made in 1599, not 1610, especially as the composer, John Farmer, died in 1601.

Rachel Musgrove

Fair Phyllis – published in 1599. Farmer died around 1601.

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