Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Composer Biography: Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Do you ever hear that expression, “he died of apoplexy?” Well, you’re about to hear the story of someone who actually did exactly that. Orlando Gibbons was an English composer, virginalist, and organist of the late Tudor and early Jacobean periods. He was a leading composer during his lifetime and remains a favorite among Renaissance musicians around the world. In fact, in the 20 th century, famed Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) named Gibbons as his favorite composer, comparing him to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Anton Webern (1883-1945). To this day, Gibbons’ memorial service continues to be commemorated every June at King’s College Chapel at Cambridge. Gibbons was born in Oxford, England, the youngest of William Gibbons’ (dates unknown) four sons. William was a town piper for Oxford and later for Cambridge, but it was his children who showed a real gift for music. Orlando’s eldest brother Edward (1568-1650) became the master of the choristers at Cambridge, and his next brother, Ellis (1573-1603), was also a composer of some repute. Ellis’ works were published along with Thomas Morley’s (c1557-1602) in a collection of madrigals that were published in 1601. This was a great honor. The family moved from Oxford to Cambridge between Orlando’s birth and his christening. At Cambridge, he became a chorister at King’s College in 1596 at 13 years old and stayed in the choir for two years. He attended the college between 1599 until 1606, earning the degree of Bachelor of Music. He earned a Doctorate of Music at Oxford in 1622. King James I appointed Gibbons to Chapel Royal (you can read more about that organization in my blog post On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player), where he served as organist from 1615 until his death. In 1623, he was promoted to senior organist at Chapel Royal with Thomas Tomkins (1572-1576), another famous musician, as his junior organist. He was also a keyboard player in the privy chamber of the court of Prince Charles (later King Charles I) and an organist at Westminster Abbey. Gibbons began composing at age 16, and by age 29, he had published keyboard music in Parthenia (c1612) the most prestigious publication of keyboard music of the time. His work was intended for virginals, but at the time, the word meant any plucked keyboard instrument, such as a harpsichord, clavichord, chamber organ, muselaar (a virginal with the keyboard on the right end of the box), or the virginal as we know it today. (The piano wasn’t invented until the very early 18 th century.) Gibbons earned the reputation of being one of the most important English composers of sacred music in the early 17 th century, writing several Anglican services that were popular in their day (and still are), and over 30 anthems, some imposing and dramatic (such as O clap your hands), others colorful and most expressive (such as See, the word is incarnate, and This is the record of John, which, along with O clap your hands, is probably his most famous and oft-performed work). His instrumental music includes over 30 elaborate contrapuntal viol fantasias and over 40 masterly keyboard pieces. His madrigals (published in 1612) are generally serious in tone (such as The Silver Swan, which is probably MY favorite piece of his, and most certainly the first piece of his that I ever performed alone on the soprano line). He was easily one of the most versatile composers of his time. Six of his pieces are in the first printed collection of English music, Parthenia, which was dedicated to Frederick, King of Germany and Lady Elizabeth, the daughter of King James I. Gibbons was the youngest of the three contributors that included John Bull (c1562-1628) (biography underway) and William Byrd (c1540-1623), two of the most famous keyboard composers of their time. Gibbons’ surviving keyboard output is about 45 pieces with his polyphonic fantasia and dance forms providing the most pieces. His writing shows full mastery of three- and four-part counterpoint (where independent melodic voices—polyphony-- intersect rhythmically). Most of the fantasias are complex, multi-sectional pieces, treating multiple subjects imitatively. Gibbons’ approach to melody shows that he can almost infinitely develop simple musical ideas. Mozart was like that too, rather famously writing elaborate variations for the song we know as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Gibbons’ choral music is distinguished by his skill with counterpoint combined with a wonderful gift for melody. He wrote sacred music, including full and verse anthems, services, and psalms, plus secular madrigals, fantasies, and works for viols, and of course, his compositions for virginals. He wrote over 30 anthems, 25 of which have highly developed polyphony for viols in the solo sections, and during which, the vocal soloists repeat the text from the choral sections. He also wrote two Anglican services, some psalms, a Te Deum, and hymn tunes. He produced two major settings of Evensong: the Short Service (including Nunc dimitis) and the Second Service, which was lengthy and combined verse and full sections. He wrote 14 madrigals (secular vocal music) and consort songs (polyphonic songs intended for “families” of instruments; for more on this, see my post on recorders). He also wrote over 30 fantasias (a freely structured piece that leaves lots of room for improvisation by soloists) for viol, plus pavans (a slow processional dance), galliards (a choreographed and fairly athletic dance), In Nomines (see my blog post on John Taverner for more about this genre), and allemandes (an instrumental-only dance that was a movement in a suite of songs). It was initially supposed that Gibbons died of the plague, which was rampant in England in 1623. The two physicians present at his death were ordered to perform an autopsy and make a report, and there’s a copy of it in The National Archives. It says that he went into convulsions, his eyes bulging. He lost speech, sight, and hearing (although this seems like a presumption, just because he wasn’t able to respond). He then grew apoplectic and became paralyzed. Gibbons was at first lethargic or “profoundly asleep,” and they couldn’t wake him. Then he died. There were no marks from the plague on his corpse, which these doctors had examined by trustworthy women (they weren’t at all confident that it wasn’t the plague, and didn’t want to risk exposure themselves). When they opened his skull, water and blood gushed out, and they found blackness in the outside area of the brain. Yuck His death was shocking to his peers, and they were just as shocked at the haste with which he was buried. It was also surprising that he was buried at Canterbury (where he died) rather than being returned to London. There’s a monument to him there at Canterbury Cathedral. Gibbons’ wife Elizabeth died a little over a year later, in her mid-30s, leaving Orlando’s eldest brother Edward to care for their orphaned children. Of these, only the second son, the first of Orlando’s surviving children, Christopher Gibbons (1615-1676), became a musician.


“The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, Jessie Ann Owens, James Haar, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984. “Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978. “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985. “The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994. “The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondshire, 1974.