Although Oxford might like to hail Orlando Gibbons as its musical son, Cambridge has the better claim. For while Gibbons was born in Oxford, and baptised there on Christmas Day 1583, his formative training was as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, where his much older brother Edward was Master of the Choristers. And while Gibbons’s father, William, worked as a musician in Oxford during the decade in which Orlando was born, both before and after that he was leader of the Cambridge Town Waits. William Gibbons died even before his son had become a chorister, and eight years later both Orlando’s mother and brother Ellis died within weeks of each other (possibly of the plague). Gibbons embarked upon adult life with personal tragedy in his wake.
There are many missing links in the historical record of Orlando Gibbons. Possibly Gibbons’s brother Edward had something to do with securing Orlando his first royal post (Edward was clearly friendly with the legendary Chapel Royal musician Dr John Bull and this might have oiled the cogs). Gibbons certainly experienced a meteoric rise to fame. He was only 19 when he began service at the court of King James and subsequently accrued a series of royal appointments that continued until his sudden death from a brain haemorrhage when he was in his very early forties.
Gibbons began his royal duties in the first weeks of James I’s reign and died in post in the first weeks of Charles I’s reign. In addition to his lifetime appointment as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, he became keyboard player to Prince Charles (as he was then), a performer of the virginals in the King’s Privy Chamber, and latterly also organist of Westminster Abbey. There can be no doubt of Gibbons’s ability as a keyboard player – his curriculum vitae is surely proof enough; moreover he was described as ‘the best finger of that age’ and ‘the best hand in England’.
He was a wholly Jacobean composer in terms of his known adult employment, yet time and time again he and his music are discussed under the banner ‘Tudor’. Sure enough, Gibbons was nearing the end of his teens when Elizabeth I died, so his formative training was indeed Tudor, but there is much that places him in the vanguard of early 17th-century musical developments in England. He never, for instance, set Latin texts – only ever English; and he never wrote for lute – only ever for keyboard. Furthermore, he approached word setting in a new way for his time; that’s to say he preferred to convey the overall meaning of a phrase rather than to paint colourful words as they appeared one by one.
Gibbons wrote Anglican services, anthems, and hymn tunes; madrigals, consort songs, and ensemble music for strings; and, of course, keyboard music, although the relative paucity of music for his own instrument(s) may be a testament to his improvisatory skills. His musical style is most obviously modelled on that of William Byrd, who was far and away the most accomplished English composer of his youth. Byrd’s last substantial publication was, in fact, a collaborative effort between himself (England’s senior composer), John Bull (England’s senior organist) and the young Orlando Gibbons (on paper, punching well above his weight). The result was Parthenia… the first music that ever was printed for the virginals. Composed by three famous masters…, a collection which demonstrates Gibbons’s musical debts and innovations.
Just over 40 pieces of instrumental consort music by Gibbons survive, mostly with the title Fantasia or Fantasy. A substantial proportion of this music was clearly designed for performance by viol consort, most obviously the four pieces with the title ‘In nomine’ – an early-Tudor genre – at least two of which may have been written while Gibbons was still a teenager. But there are some 15 pieces, including those ‘for the great double bass’, that show signs of having been written for the sounds and techniques of violins rather than viols.
Gibbons wrote a significant amount of functional English church music, that’s to say predominantly syllabic music (in which the words are set with one note per syllable) for the Anglican rite of services, responses and hymn tunes, whose purpose was to communicate the texts clearly. He was a master of this craft, although from time to time he also impressed with his contrapuntal ingenuity without ever detracting from his basic mission which was to make the words audible and their setting succinct. The ‘Gloria’ of the Nunc Dimittis from his Short Service is a case in point, where the canon between the two upper voices adds fairy dust to what is, at root, a workaday carving.
Whether in his best madrigals or anthems, Gibbons’s unique genius lay in telling a story to musical accompaniment. Secular examples include gems such as ‘The Silver Swan’ and the tripartite ‘Nay let me weep’ whose effectiveness makes us want to believe that it was written as a mourning song for the premature death of Henry Prince of Wales in 1612. On a larger scale, the full anthem ‘O Clap your Hands’ would have been an arresting musical accompaniment to an Oxford University degree ceremony in 1622. The famous verse anthems ‘This is the Record of John’ and ‘See, See the Word is Incarnate’ achieve their magnificent effects in an entirely different way.
It is the mark of his ability as a setter of English words that, once these stories have been told through Gibbons’s mouth, the texts seem naked unless dressed in the music of this Jacobean genius. As with all great artists who meet an early death, it is tempting to imagine what he might have created after June 1625 had he not been ‘deprived of life by a lamentable rush of blood to the head and the cruel hand of fate’.