Fair Phyllis was written by the English composer and organist John Farmer (c.1570 – c.1601). and was published in 1599 in his only collection of four-part madrigals. It is sometimes given the longer title of Fair Phyllis I Saw Sitting All Alone, sometimes Fair Phyllis I Saw.
Like many English madrigals it uses double entendre to carry a ribald subtext. Amyntas, Phyllis’s lover, goes searching for her on the mountainside: "Up and down he wandered, whilst she was missing". Then, "When he found her, O then they fell a-kissing" – and in comes the (very rhythmic) "Up and down... up and down up and down he wandered".
Madrigals don’t really lend themselves to a great variety of styles of interpretation, only quality of performance. As usual, The King’s Singers’ performance is exemplary: light, swift and precise. Out of the hundreds of YouTube performances by other vocal groups and chamber choirs, here are a few of the more memorable:
A footnote: John Farmer’s contemporary, Francis Pilkington, also composed a madrigal about Phyllis and Amyntas, Amyntas With His Phyllis Fair. This was published in 1613, some years after Farmer’s untimely death. It may have been inspired by Farmer’s song, but lacks its musical sparkle (and double entendre).
Saturday 29th September 2018
12th & 13th October
Home at Last
St. Mary Redcliffe
Sunday 11th November
Footnotes to the Great War
Bristol Museum, 6.30 pm
Saturday 15th December
St Alban's Church, Westbury Park, 7.30 pm