Portrait by an unknown Artist[n 1]
|Baptised||25 December 1583|
Orlando Gibbons (/
Born in Oxfordshire,[n 2] Gibbons was probably the 8th of 10 children[n 3] and born into a musical family where his father, William Gibbons, was a wait and his children were expected to follow his footsteps in the trade. It is not known who he studied composition with, although it is possible to have been with an older brother or his father. Gibbons was certainly acquainted with William Byrd and John Bull due to the three's later collective publication of the first printed collection of keyboard music, Parthenia, and since Bull was a student of Byrd it is possible that Gibbons was as well, however there is no uncircumstantial evidence to support this.
Regardless to how his education came about, he was musically proficient enough to not only be appointed by King James I a gentleman of the Chapel Royal sometime around May of 1603 but also a senior organist by 1605. By 1606 he had graduated from King's College, Cambridge with a Bachelor of Music and later he also received an honorary Doctor of Music from Oxford in May of 1622.[n 4] The most important position achieved by Gibbons was his appointment in 1623 as the organist at Westminster Abbey which he held for 2 years until his death on the June 5th, 1625.
Gibbons was the leading composer in early 17th century England and a pivotal transition figure from the end of the Renaissance to the beginning of the Baroque era. He was praised in his time by a visit in 1624 from the French ambassador, Charles de L'Aubespine, who stated upon entering Westminster Abbey that “At the entrance, the organ was touched by the best finger of that age, Mr. Orlando Gibbons." Musicologist and composer, Frederick Ouseley, dubbed him to be the "English Palestrina"[n 5] and the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould praised him highly and compared his music, especially for the keyboard, to the likes of Beethoven and Webern. Gibbons paved the way for a future generation of English composers by perfecting the Byrd's foundations of the English madrigal as well as both full and verse anthems, and especially by teaching music to his oldest son, Christopher, who in turn taught John Blow, Pelham Humfrey and most notably Henry Purcell the English pioneer of the Baroque era. The modern music critic John Rockwell claimed that the oeuvre of Gibbons: "all attested not merely to a significant figure in music's past but to a composer who can still speak directly to the present."
Gibbons was born in 1583 and baptised on Christmas Day at Oxford, where his father William Gibbons was working as a wait. Between 1596 and 1598 he sang in the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, where his brother Edward Gibbons (1568–1650), the eldest of William's four sons, was master of the choristers. The second brother, Ellis Gibbons (1573–1603), was also a promising composer, but died young. The third brother, Ferdinando, may have taken their father's place as a wait. Orlando entered the university as a sizar in 1598 and achieved the degree of Bachelor of Music in 1606. That same year he married Elizabeth Patten, daughter of a Yeoman of the Vestry, and they went on to have seven children (Gibbons himself was the seventh of 10 children).
King James I appointed Gibbons a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1603, and on March 21, 1605, he became senior organist at the Chapel Royal, with Thomas Tomkins as junior organist. He also held positions as keyboard player in the privy chamber of the court of Prince Charles (later King Charles I), and in 1623 he became the organist at Westminster Abbey, where he officiated at the funeral of King James I. He died at age 41 in Canterbury of apoplexy, and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral. His death was a shock to his peers and brought about a post-mortem, though the cause of death aroused less comment than the haste of his burial and his body not being returned to London. His wife, Elizabeth, died a little over a year later, in her mid-30s, leaving Orlando's eldest brother, Edward, to care for the orphaned children. Of these children only the eldest son, Christopher Gibbons, became a musician.
One of the most versatile English composers of his time, Gibbons wrote a large number of keyboard works, around thirty fantasias for viols, a number of madrigals (the best-known being "The Silver Swan"), and many popular verse anthems, all to English texts (the best known being "Great Lord of Lords"). Perhaps his best-known verse anthem is This Is the Record of John, which sets an Advent text for solo countertenor or tenor, alternating with full chorus. The soloist is required to demonstrate considerable technical facility, and the work expresses the text's rhetorical force without being demonstrative or bombastic. He also produced two major settings of Evensong, the Short Service and the Second Service, an extended composition combining verse and full sections. Gibbons's full anthems include the expressive O Lord, in thy wrath, and the Ascension Day anthem O clap your hands together (after Psalm 47) for eight voices.
He contributed six pieces to the first printed collection of keyboard music in England, Parthenia (to which he was by far the youngest of the three contributors), published in about 1611. Gibbons's surviving keyboard output comprises some 45 pieces. The polyphonic fantasia and dance forms are the best represented genres. Gibbons's writing exhibits a command of three- and four-part counterpoint. Most of the fantasias are complex, multi-sectional pieces, treating multiple subjects imitatively. Gibbons's approach to melody, in both his fantasias and his dances, features extensive development of simple musical ideas, as for example in Pavane in D minor and Lord Salisbury's Pavan and Galliard.
'First Set of Madrigals and Mottets, apt for Viols and Voyces'. Twenty pieces, all by Gibbons.
The Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls contains six keyboard works by Gibbons.
Leighton's 'Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soule', published 1614, contains several works by Gibbons.
Nine three-part works, all by Gibbons.
George Withers' 'Hymnes and Songs of the Church', published 1623, contains 16 works by Gibbons in the original edition and adds a 17th in a later edition.
In the 20th century, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould championed Gibbons's music, and named him as his favourite composer. Gould wrote of Gibbons's hymns and anthems: "ever since my teen-age years this music ... has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of." In one interview, Gould compared Gibbons to Beethoven and Webern:
...despite the requisite quota of scales and shakes in such half-hearted virtuoso vehicles as the Salisbury Galliard, one is never quite able to counter the impression of music of supreme beauty that lacks its ideal means of reproduction. Like Beethoven in his last quartets, or Webern at almost any time, Gibbons is an artist of such intractable commitment that, in the keyboard field, at least, his works work better in one's memory, or on paper, than they ever can through the intercession of a sounding-board.
Gibbons's death, on 5 June 1625, is regularly marked in King's College Chapel, Cambridge, by the singing of his music at Evensong. A number of Gibbons's church anthems were included in the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems (OUP, 1978).
A suspicion immediately arose that Gibbons had died of the plague, which was rife in England that year. Two physicians who had been present at his death were ordered to make a report, and performed a post-mortem examination, the account of which survives in The National Archives:
We whose names are here underwritten: having been called to give our counsels to Mr. Orlando Gibbons; in the time of his late and sudden sickness, which we found in the beginning lethargical, or a profound sleep; out of which, we could never recover him, neither by inward nor outward medicines, & then instantly he fell in most strong, & sharp convulsions; which did wring his mouth up to his ears, & his eyes were distorted, as though they would have been thrust out of his head & then suddenly he lost both speech, sight and hearing, & so grew apoplectical & lost the whole motion of every part of his body, & so died. Then here upon (his death being so sudden) rumours were cast out that he did die of the plague, whereupon we . . . caused his body to be searched by certain women that were sworn to deliver the truth, who did affirm that they never saw a fairer corpse. Yet notwithstanding we to give full satisfaction to all did cause the skull to be opened in our presence & we carefully viewed the body, which we found also to be very clean without any show or spot of any contagious matter. In the brain we found the whole & sole cause of his sickness namely a great admirable blackness & syderation in the outside of the brain. Within the brain (being opened) there did issue out abundance of water intermixed with blood & this we affirm to be the only cause of his sudden death.
There are only two extensive books written about Orlando Gibbons and his family.
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| Organist and Master of the Choristers of Westminster Abbey