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   Chapter 5 ORLANDO GIBBONS

Twelve Good Musicians By Frederick Bridge Characters: 19178

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


1583-1625

Orlando Gibbons is certainly the most outstanding name of the English musicians in the early part of the 17th century. A good deal of this is, no doubt, due to the fact that his contributions to Sacred Music have been one of the great possessions of our Cathedral School, and their presence in service lists has been-and I venture to hope will always be-a constant tribute to their excellence.

Gibbons' upbringing was, of course, such as turned his mind naturally, though by no means exclusively, to Church Music.

He was the son of one of the City waifs of Cambridge, William Gibbons, and was born in 1583. Placed in the Choir of King's College, he is mentioned amongst the Choristers during the years 1596-97; at which time his elder brother, Edward Gibbons, was Organist of the College. It might be noted in passing that this Edward Gibbons was himself a B.Mus. of both Universities; and, after occupying an appointment at Bristol at the beginning of the 17th century, was, later, organist and Priest Vicar at Exeter Cathedral, where he had to answer a charge of neglecting his duties; this, however, he managed to do successfully. He died about 1653.

To return to Orlando. There are some interesting entries in the College Records of 1601, 1602, and 1603, of sums of from 2s. to 2s. 6d. paid to Gibbons-or Gibbins, as it is there spelt-for music composed "in festo Dominae Reginae," and also in the two latter years for music for the Purification. No Christian name is given, but there is little doubt it was Orlando Gibbons. He was placed in an important and honourable appointment at an early age, for in 1604 he became Organist of the Chapel Royal, and in 1606 took his bachelor's degree at Cambridge.

In 1611 his name appears as an associate with Byrd and Bull in a work called Parthenia, a collection of pieces for the Virginals of which I shall speak later on.

We do not hear much more of him until 1612, with the exception of a mention in the State Papers of that period, wherein we find a petition in 1611 to the Earl of Salisbury "for a lease in reversion of forty marks per annum of Duchy lands, without fine, as promised him by the Queen." The year 1612 sees the publication of his First sett of Madrigals and Mottets of 5 parts, apt for viols or voyces. Newly composed by ORLANDO GIBBONS, Batchelor of Music, Organist of H. M. Chapel in Ordinary. The work is dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton, and the dedication runs thus: "They were most of them composed in your owne house and doe therefore properly belong to you. The language you provided them, I only furnished them with tongues to utter the same." It is thought from this that Sir C. Hatton wrote the words, as Gibbons was on terms of close intimacy with him. Another proof of this is shown by a piece in Ben Coszyn's Virginal Book, where Gibbons is represented by a "Hatten's" Galliard. The collection, Madrigals and Mottets, is rather misleading as to title, for there is not one Motet in it, though there are thirteen Madrigals, some divided into 2, 3 and 4 sections, each as long as an ordinary Madrigal. One of the 'sett' is The Silver Swan.

It has been stated that besides the published Madrigals, no secular or vocal compositions exist in MS. except a kind of Burlesque Madrigal called The Cryes of London for 6 voices.

This statement is altogether incorrect. To mention one, a song, A Soldier's Farewell to his Mistress ("My love, adieu") is in existence, and I have often had it performed. And the statement about the Burlesque Madrigal is truly absurd. It is curious that the musical historians have, as in Burney's case, either neglected to notice the existence of the work on the Cryes of London, or have, quite incorrectly, called it a Madrigal. It is a particularly interesting form of composition. Like Weelkes' Humourous Fancy, it has parts for Viols and a superimposed vocal score for S.A.T.B. (not 6 voices) consisting of the Old Cryes of London. But it differs in one respect from Weelkes', for it is an "In Nomine" for strings. This is an older form of the Fancy, and has the peculiarity of one part for the Viol-an inner part-being allotted a well-known old ecclesiastical melody. This Plainsong melody is to be found in the Sarum Missal to the words "Gloria Tibi Trinitas," and, curiously enough, the same Plainsong is used by many composers of "In Nomines," Byrd and Ferabosco amongst others. But this is the only example I have come across where a sacred melody is introduced in connection with secular, and, in the case of Cryes, somewhat humourous words. Examples of the introduction of secular tunes into the sacred works by composers of the Italian school of the 16th century are, of course, very common. This is a curious reversal of the custom, i.e. the introduction of a sacred tune into a secular vocal work. It says much for Gibbons' skill that he is able to write very effective and flowing Viol parts and to introduce so many examples of the old Cryes, quite untrammelled by the Plainsong persistently played by one of the Viols. The copy from which this interesting work is taken is a MS. written by Thomas Myriell in 1616, so the Fancy was composed before that date. The copyist who preserved this work for us was the Rector of St Stephen's, Wallbrook, the church adjoining the Mansion House. Between 1612 and 1622 must have been published the best known Fantasies by Gibbons, for the collection is dedicated to Edward Wray as one of the Grooms of the Bedchamber, and Wray was dismissed in 1622. Fantasies of Three parts composed by Orlando Gibbons, Batchelor of Musick, and late organist to His M. Chapel Royal in Ordinary. Cut in Copper, the like not here-to-fore Extant. The word "late" is rather surprising, when he is not recorded to have resigned his position at the Chapel Royal. He was appointed Organist of Westminster Abbey in 1623.

These Fantasies were published by The Musical Antiquarian Society in 1843; and in some respects this publication has been the cause of a good deal of ignorance as to the real progress which Instrumental music made in the early years of the 17th century. They are undoubtedly somewhat dull when placed by the side of Fancies by Byrd and others. No doubt the veneration for Gibbons and the rightful appreciation of his fine Cathedral music made the members of the old and valuable Musical Antiquarian Society more ready to edit his Fancies than to select from less eminent Church writers. But one cannot have much respect for Burney's judgment when he pronounces Orlando Gibbons to have been "utterly contemptible in his productions for instruments." He must be judged alongside of other 16th century composers; for, although he indeed lived through the first quarter of the seventeenth century, his instrumental music is characteristic of the sixteenth.

In common with other composers of his day, Gibbons shows in his Clavier works an earlier and more successful attempt at a true Instrumental style than he does in his music for Strings. The Viols were later in forsaking the vocal polyphonic style than the keyed instruments, simply because the vocal style suited the bowed instruments so much better than the Clavier. So we find composers for the Clavier borrowing the rhythmic features of folk-songs and dance-tunes much earlier than they found it desirable or necessary to do in Viol music.

Out of six pieces by Gibbons in Parthenia, three are dances (a Pavane and two Galliards); one (The Queenes Commande) is an air with variations; and the other two are the Preludium (a piece of very simple harmonic design, with florid figuration like the early organ preludes) and a quite remarkable Fantasia in four parts-remarkable because rather exceptional as a Clavier piece, and also because of its protracted and serious working in the Canzona style. In the Fitzwilliam Collection the only pieces by Gibbons are an air with variations, The Woods so Wilde, and a Pavane-the latter, however, being identical with The Lord of Salisbury his Pavin, which is found also in Parthenia.

With regard to the Fancies written for "Base Viall," "Mean Viall," and "Trebble Viall," after the manner of the period, these were published absolutely devoid of any indications of pace, of phrasing, or of expression. To this fact is probably due some of their loss of popularity. They require artists to interpret them, and in good hands are capable of considerable effect in the old quaint style. The robust tones of the modern 'Cello, Viola and Violin can hardly give us a correct impression of these pieces, but by muting them a very good suggestion of "Viall" tone is obtainable.

One may mention another "Fancy" written this time for two "trebble Vialls" and a "Base." Whether it is the difference of the instruments, or the fact that it is a later number in the collection and may therefore be a later composition, I cannot say; but there is a distinctly more modern spirit about this "Fancy." It is more rhythmic, the sections are more marked, and at the end there is a complete repetition of an eight-bar phrase, the only difference in the repeat being that the first viall here takes the second part, and vice versa.

In the domain of Sacred Music Orlando Gibbons certainly holds the foremost place amongst the English composers of the contrapuntal school. No name is better known in our Cathedrals. In great gatherings of Cathedral Choirs in my young days (alas! we do not now have such gatherings to any great extent) Gibbons' splendid Service in F was always an item to which we looked forward.

And he has left us almost as great a collection of anthems as Purcell did in later years. Many of them were composed for special occasions. One was a wedding Anthem "for my Lord Somerset"; another "made for the King's being in Scotland" (this was, of course, James I, and it was from this Anthem I extracted the splendid concluding "Amen" which was sung at the Coronations of King Edward VII and King George V, and which is now the recognized "Abbey Amen").

The Anthem "This is the record of John" has a string accompaniment for Viols; this was "made for Laud, President of St John's, Oxford, for St John Baptist's Day." Another "Behold thou hast made my days" was composed at the entreaty of Dr Maxey, Dean of Windsor, "the same day se'night before his death."

Mention must also be made of "O clap your hands," which has always had a suspicion attached to it of having played the part of Dr Heyther's Doctor's Exercise. This suspicion is deepened by the fact that Dr Cummings possessed a MS. of it with the following inscription upon it: "Dr Heyther's Commencement Song Composed by Dr Orlando Gibbons". They both took their degrees at Oxford on the same occasion viz: the foundation of the Camden History Professorship. Heyther was a Lay Vicar of Westminster, and it was he who founded the Oxford Music Lecture, now represented by the Professorship. It was originally worth £3 a year. The degrees were conferred on the two friends of Camden at his special request.

Gibbons was also a contributor to Wither's Hymns and Songs of the Church. Withers himself pays him the following tribute: "He hath chosen to make his music agreeable to the matter, and what the common apprehension can best admit, rather than to the curious fancies of the time; which path both of us could more easily have trodden."

Gibbons appears to have had a sense of humour, judging from a letter which we found in the Westminster Abbey Muniment Room some years ago. I believe this is the only letter of Gibbons' that is known. It is addressed to the Treasurer of the Abbey, asking that the organ-tuner, one Burrard, might be paid; it runs as follows:

Mr. Ireland: I know this bill to be very resonable for I have alredy cut him off ten shillings therfore I pray despathe him, for he hath delt honestly wth ye church soe shall I rest yr servant,

Orlando Gibbons.

The whole bill was very small, and by "cutting him off ten shillings" I think old Orlando was rather hard!

We get a glimpse of Orlando Gibbons' organ-playing in the Abbey from the Life of Archbishop Williams, sometime Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. The French Ambassadors who came over to arrange the marriage of the Prince of Wales (afterwards Charles I) with Henrietta Maria were entertained at supper in the Jerusalem Chamber. But before the Supper we are told "The Embassadors, with the Nobles and Gentlemen in their Company, were brought in at the North Gate of the Abbey, which was stuck with Flambeaux everywhere that strangers might cast their eyes upon the stateliness of the Church. At the Door of the Quire the Lord Keeper besought their Lordships to go in and take their seats there for a while. At their entrance the organ was touched by the best Finger of that age, Mr Orlando Gibbons. The Lord Embassadors and their Great Train took up all the stalls where they continued about half-an-hour, while the Quiremen, vested in their Rich Copes, sang three several Anthems with most exquisite voices before them."

This Dean Williams was a very great man, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, Bishop of Lincoln, and afterwards Archbishop of York; he was Dean of Westminster in 1620. We are told in his Life, written by John Halket, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry: "He procured the sweetest music both for the organ and for voices of all parts, that ever was heard in English music. In those days the Abbey and the Jerusalem Chamber, where he gave entertainment to his friends, were the votaries of the Choicest Songs that the Land has heard. The greatest masters of that delightful faculty frequented here above all others." I think it must be to this patron of music that we owe the fine collection of Madrigals and Motets (including the very rare and valuable books of Deering) which are now preserved in the Abbey Library.

This account of the perfection of the music at the Abbey in these remote days, under the fostering care of a Dean distinguished both as a statesman and a musician, may perhaps be followed by a contemporary description of the members of a choir-not, of course, of the Abbey Choir in particular by another Dean. This was Dean Earle, the first Dean after the Restoration. But the work from which I quote was first printed in 1628, so that it is only a year or two after the time of Gibbons. Earle was not Dean of Westminster until more than 30 years later. The book is entitled Microcosmographie: a piece of the World discovered in Essays and Characters, and was first published anonymously. I hope this description of what the writer calls "A Merry Crew, the Common Singing-men in Cathedrall Churches," is not a true description of the great body of such choirs at the time, but it is worth quoting.

The Common Singing-men in Cathedral Churches

Are a bad Society, and yet a Company of good Fellowes, that roare deep in the Quire, deeper in the Taverne. They are the eight parts of speech, which goe to the Syntaxis of Service, and are distinguish't by their noyses much like Bells, for they make not a Consort but a Peale. Their pastime or recreation is prayers, their exercise drinking, yet herein so religiously addicted that they serve God oftest when they are drunke. Their humanity is a legge [=consists in a bow] to the Residencer, their learning a Chapter, for they learne it commonly before they read it, yet the old Hebrew names are little beholden to them, for they mis-call them worse then one another. Though they never expound the Scripture, they handle it much, and pollute the Gospell with two things, their Conversation and their thumbes. Upon worky-dayes they behave themselves at Prayers as at their pots, for they swallow them downe in an instant. Their Gownes are lac'd [=streaked] commonly with steamings of ale, the superfluities of a cup or throat above measure. Their skill in melody makes them the better companions abroad, and their Anthemes abler to sing Catches. Long liv'd for the most part they are not, especially the base, they overflow their banke so oft to drowne the Organs. Briefly, if they escape arresting, they dye constantly in God's Service; and to take their death with more patience, they have Wine and Cakes at their Funerall: and now they keepe the Church a great deale better, and helpe to fill it with their bones as before with their noyse.

This quotation must not be taken too seriously. Earle's book was written when he was a young man, probably under the inspiration of Casaubon's translation of the fourth-century Theophrastus' Characters published in 1592. It consists of 77 "Characters," some of them serious studies, and others, such as the above, humorous or satirical sketches, not intended to be true representations, yet containing a basis of truth. Richard Baxter, writing to Earle, says: "In charity, and gentleness, and peaceableness of mind, you are very eminent."

A very unusual adventure is chronicled as having taken place on St Peter's Day, 1620: "Eveseed, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, did violently and sodenly without cause runne upon Mr Gibbons, took him up and threw him down upon a Standard whereby he received such hurt that he is not yet recovered of the same, and withal he tare the band from his neck to his prejudice and disgrace."

In 1625 Gibbons had to compose and direct the music for the reception at Canterbury of Henrietta Maria, on the occasion of her marriage with Charles I. It was to be his last commission, for he died on Whitsunday, June 5th.

With regard to his death, we have always been led to believe that he died of small-pox-all the histories, including the admirable Grove's Dictionary, have taught us so. Mr W. Barclay Squire, of the British Museum, has, however, shown this to be incorrect. In a letter, which he found among the State Papers, from Sir Albertus Morton to Lord Edward Conway, and endorsed "Mr Secretary Morton, touching the Musician that dyed at Canterburie and supposed to have died of the plague," a medical certificate is enclosed signed by Drs Poe and Domingo, stating that his sickness was at first "lethargicall" followed by convulsions: "he grew apoplecticall and so died"-thus refuting the small-pox theory in favour of apoplexy.

His portrait is in the collection at Oxford, and a fine monument with an excellent bust was erected in Canterbury Cathedral by the composer's widow.

It was my privilege to suggest and organize a Musical Festival of Gibbons' works in Westminster Abbey in 1907. Some of his finest Church music was given by a very large choir, and a beautiful replica in black marble of the bust of the composer, which is in Canterbury Cathedral, was unveiled. It has always seemed to me a reflection upon the Abbey that no memorial to the greatest of its organists-save Purcell-should be found there. This Festival created very great interest, and brought a munificent offer from Mr Crews, a well-known amateur and Master of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, to defray the expense of a bust of the celebrated organist. It is well placed in close proximity to the memorials of his worthy successors, Blow, Purcell, and Croft.

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