Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

Music Matters: May 2018

The Director of Music writes…

Much of the choir’s time this month will be spent on the music of the English composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).  After early training as a chorister at King’s College Cambridge, Gibbons later became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.  For the last two years of his short life he served as Organist of Westminster Abbey.

Gibbons’ First or ‘Short’ setting of the evening canticles (the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) has long been in the choir’s repertoire (and, on a personal level has a special place in my heart as the first set of canticles I conducted at St Peter’s in my early days as Music Associate back in 2003!); it is an almost entirely homophonic setting (that is, each of the four voices parts move with the same or similar rhythm) with the text clearly and eloquently set to music.  There was a tradition in the seventeenth century of pairing settings of the canticles with an anthem written in the same mode and for the same selection of voices; the anthem paired with the ‘Short’ Service is Almighty and everlasting God, a setting of the Collect for the Third Sunday after Epiphany.  Gibbons’ full anthems (i.e., those where the full choir sings throughout) owe much to the music of Thomas Tallis  who was the subject of March’s ‘Music Matters’ and one of Gibbons’ most illustrious predecessors.  St Peter’s Choir will sing this anthem (as an introit) alongside the ‘Short’ Service during our visit to Tewkesbury Abbey on 26th May.

Gibbons is perhaps most famous for his verse anthems – those where a solo voice (or group of solo voices) alternate with shorter passages for the full choir which repeat or reinforce the solo material.  Readers may already be familiar with the famous This is the Record of John which St Peter’s Choir routinely sings during Advent (though it makes an unusual appearance again this Summer as we observe the Birth of John the Baptist in late June!) which is one of three of Gibbons’ verse anthems written for just a single soloist.  At Evensong on 13th May (which we observe as the Eve of St Matthias) the choir will sing another such work, Lord, grant grace – a text related to the collect for All Saints.  The verse passages start with a charmingly contrapuntal duet for soprano and alto, but as the piece unfolds, expands to eight soloists (SSAATTB); the choral passages are less expansively scored, being for a choir of SAATB.  The work is lightly accompanied by organ, but you may hear a number of contemporary recordings using the alternative (and wonderful!) sound of a viol consort which, although unlikely to have been used liturgically in Gibbons’ time, may well have accompanied such repertoire outside of church performance.

The anthem for our visit to Tewkesbury carries with it an interesting story.  This was an age when patronage was of paramount importance to the church musician, perhaps particularly for those associated with the Chapel Royal.  Great King of Gods was written to preface the one and only return by James I to his native Scotland in 1617.  In the 1870s, not doubt to enable this glorious piece to form part of the repertoire for sacred choirs, a more directly ecclesiastical text (and one particularly appropriate for the Eve of Trinity Sunday, on which our visit to Tewkesbury falls) by HR Bramley was substituted:

Great King of gods, whose gracious hand hath led
Our sacred sovereign head
Unto the place where all our bliss was bred.
O send thine angels to his blessed side,
And bid them there abide,
To be at once his guardian and his guide.
Dear be his life, all glorious be his days,
And prospering all his ways;
Late add thy last crown to his peace and praise.
And when he hath outlived the world’s long date,
Let thy last change translate
His living flesh to thy celestial state.
Great Lord of Lords, supreme immortal King,
O give us grace to sing
Thy praise, which makes earth, air, and heaven to ring.
O Word of God, from ages unbegun,
The Father’s only Son,
With Him in power, in substance, Thou art one.
O Holy Ghost, Whose care doth all embrace,
Thy watch is o’er our race,
Thou Source of Life, Thou Spring of peace and grace.
One living Trinity, One unseen Light,
All, all is Thine, Thy light
Beholds alike the bounds of depth and height.

If you are able to join us in Tewkesbury, please do (Evensong is at 5pm) but if not, you may enjoy this video of the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral performing this anthem in 1986: youtube.com/watch?v=83G3a8VnFUs. In either case I hope you might agree with Charles Butler in his 1636 book, Principles of Musik, that the verse anthem form is “a solemn Anthem, wherein a sweet melodious treble, or countertenor, singeth single, and the full quire answereth … maketh such a heavenly harmony, as is pleasing unto God and Man”.