Composer: John Farmer (1570?-1601)

Piece: Fair Phyllis

Date: 1599

Form: English Madrigal

Setting: Four voice (SATB)

Texture: Polyphonic and Homophonic

Text: Six line poem by the composer

The music of “Fair Phyllis” is lively, and the character of the piece leans towards a light, amusing theme. Farmer masterfully utilizes the concept of word painting, which is characteristic of the English madrigal. The text is pastoral in character, meaning the words depict an outdoors scene involving shepherds. The soprano line begins the piece, representing Phyllis, a shepherd, sitting alone. An image of feeding the flock is created as the remainder of the voice parts enter on the text “Feeding her flock near to the mountain side.” This first section then repeats.


After the repeat, Farmer employs the standard Renaissance compositional technique of imitation with each part entering sequentially from the soprano voice down to the bass. This imitative motion illustrates the sense of seriousness in the text “but after her lover Amyntas hied [meaning to hasten or to strive],” which leads into the more urgent middle section. Here Farmer continues to display his tremendous skill in word painting.  He plays with the text by having each part sing ascending and descending imitative lines, musically depicting the words, “Up and down he wandered.”


Farmer cleverly ends the composition by creating a resolution to the story line. First, he moves from an imitative, polyphonic texture to a homorhythmic texture. He then creates a playful mood through his portrayal of the text, “when he found her, they fell a kissing…” Farmer uses a contrasting triple to duple meter and duple to triple meter. A light, lilting pastoral image is created through Farmer’s masterful skill of combining music and text in this delightful madrigal. A piece such as this was meant to be enjoyed by audiences and performers alike, with its challenging imitative entrances, mixed meter and enchanting text.