John Ward was born at Canterbury in 1571 and died at Ilford Magna in Essex in 1638. His life was spent in the employ of Sir Henry Fanshawe, who as Remembrancer of the Exchequer was an important official, and was also a 'great lover of music.' In Fanshawe's household, his daughter-in-law records, there were 'many gentlemen that were perfectly well qualified both in that and the Italian tongue.'1
Ward served Sir Henry both as an Attorney in the Exchequer and as a musician, but beyond the fact that he married and had three children we know nothing of his life.
The only works of Ward's to be printed in his lifetime were his First Set of English Madrigals...With a Mourning Song in memory of Prince Henryof 1613, and his contributions to Sir William Leighton's musical anthology The Teares or Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soule(1614) and to Ravenscroft's Psalmes(1621), though other compositions, including many fancies and In Nomines for viols, some verse anthems and services, and a few more madrigals circulated in manuscript.
Ward dedicated his 1613 publication to 'the Honorable Gentleman, and my very good Maister, Sir Henry Fanshawe.' frankly admittingthat they were controversial, that 'the excellent varietie of these Compositions, hath fed time with fulnesse, and bred many Censors, more curious than (perhaps) Iudiciall.' Yet Ward also presented what he termed 'the primitiaeof my Muse' in the confidence that these would 'pleasingly rellish, and (with your equal selfe) mainteine me against the corrupted number of Time-sicke humorists.'
What is entirely exceptional about Ward is his concern for his texts and their setting. In general, whatever their other and manifold virtues, the English madrigalists displayed a cavalier and essentially frivolous attitude to the content of the poems that they set. Ward's collection, in contrast, commences with one of Sir Philip Sidney's most famous sonnets, and includes three more settings of lines by Sidney, three (possibly four) of lines by Michael Drayton, four of lines by Frances Davison, as well as of a poem by Davison's brother and a song translated by Bartholemew Yong from Montemayor's romance, the Diana. The texts frequently differ from the published versions, and show evidence of careful adaptation by Ward, always to the point.
Ward's music in these madrigals is stringent, intellectual, even terse. To a remarkable extent he eschews chromaticism, the fashionable device for the creation of violent emotional effect. The dissonances and suspensions that so distinguish his style are organic, emerging logically from his decisive and unusually broad melodic lines.
Ward seems to have been thought of by his contemporaries as a'gentleman' rather thana professional musician. But the tribute paid to him by Thomas Tomkins (who in 1622 dedicated a madrigal to him) is evidence of high regard from a professional composer whose own techniques were often unconventional and resisted the more immediately pleasing conventions of his period. Ward, as he tells us and Fanshawe in his dedication to the Madrigals.did not write for the 'queasie-pallated, or surfeited delight,' but for the 'sound,' those who, like his patron, could appreciate 'numbers' fitting to their 'innated Harmony.' Arguably, in his assimilation of states of feeling born of melancholy to music of striking design and originality, he challenges comparison with his great contemporaries, John Danyel and John Dowland.