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While Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) did not compose as much music as his illustrious contemporary, William Byrd, he ranks as one of the finest composers of his day, being especially notable for his church and keyboard music. However, it was not so much as a composer but chiefly as a performer that he was best known during his life, for he was regarded as the foremost keyboard player in England; a fact which is substantiated as much by his appointments and honours as by the comments of his contemporaries. John Chamberlain was not exaggerating when he referred to Gibbons at the time of the composer's death in a letter as having "the best hand in England". For only the previous year in 1624, the French ambassador and his party had visited Westminster Abbey and an account of the event reveals the high regard in which Gibbons was held in addition to casting light upon the musical standards of the Abbey : "At their entrance, the organ was touched by the best finger of that age, Mr. Orlando Gibbons... and while the verse was played, The Lord Keeper presented the ambassadors and the rest of the noblest quality of their nation with the liturgy as it spoke to them in their own language. The Lords Amabassadors and their great train took up all the stalls, where they continued half an hour while the choirmen, vested in their rich copes, with their choristers, sang three several anthems, with most exquisite voices before them".
Orlando Gibbons was born at Oxford and was baptised there on Christmas Day 1583 at St. Martin's Church. He was the tenth and youngest child of William and Mary Gibbons. The star of good fortune seems to have watched over most of his life, for he had the advantage of being born into a musical family and his talents received early recognition and encouragement. His father, William Gibbons, was a musician of no mean ability for he was appointed a city wait in Cambridge in 1567 ; a position which denoted a high musical skill - the waits were an important feature of civic life in Elizabethan England and comprised small bands of competent musicians maintained by the municipal authorities for civic functions.
When Orlando Gibbons reached the age of four he moved with his family from Oxford to Cambridge. In 1596, at the age of twelve, Orlando entered the choir of King's College, Cambridge and sang regularly there until the autumn of 1598. In the Easter term of 1598 he entered the university as a student and in 1602 and 1603 he received payments from Kings College for his participation in special musical celebrations. It would seem that Gibbons joined the Chapel Royal in about 1603 as an unpaid Gentleman Extraordinary - this being a common method of entry at the time - as his name first appears in the Chapel Royal Cheque Book in an entry dated 19 May 1603 as one of the signatories to an agreement by the full choir on conditions of service under the new monarch, James I. The exact date of his appointment as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal is uncertain. Although little is known of his activities from 1598-1605, it is certain that he was developing his brilliant gifts as a performer, for he was appointed to the prestigious position of organist of the Chapel Royal in March 1605 at the remarkably young age of twenty one; a position which Gibbons retained until the end of his life.
In 1606 he took the degree of B.Mus. at Cambridge and in the same year he married Elizabeth, daughter of John Patten - the latter being a yeoman in the vestry of the Chapel Royal. By the year 1611 Orlando had earned himself an outstanding reputation and so it is not surprising to discover that the munificence of King James I was bestowed upon him in two handsome gifts in 1611 and 1615. The last of these gifts in 1615 was the unusually large sum of ? 150 "for and in consideration of the good and faithful service heretofore done unto ourself by Orlando Gibbons our organist, and divers other good causes and considerations us thereunto moving". In 1613 he was one of the persons who accompanied Prince Frederick V, Elector of Palatine and his newly wedded wife, Princess Elizabeth (daughter of James I) in their triumphal journey from London to Fredericks capital Heidelberg. The only other musician who is known to have accompanied the royal couple was John Coprario, and both he and Gibbons were undoubtedly called upon to provide entertainment when the party were resting from travelling.
In 1619 Orlando Gibbons succeeded Walter Earle as "one of his Majesty's musicians for the Virginalles to attend in his highnes privie chamber" for which he received the annual income of ? 46. On 17 May 1622 Gibbons took the D. Mus. degree at Oxford University. In 1623 Gibbons added yet another appointment to his already outstanding list, that of organist of Westminster Abbey. As "senior organist" of the Chapel Royal and organist of Westminster Abbey, Gibbons was called upon to play the organ at the funeral of King James I in March 1625. In May of that year preparations were begun to receive the new Queen, Henrietta Maria, whom Charles I had married by proxy in Paris at the beginning of the month. Whith the Chapel Royal in attendance the whole court set out for Canterbury on 31 May, and on Whitsunday 5 June, while awaiting the arrival of the new Queen, Orlando Gibbons died of apoplexy. Gibbons was buried the next day in Canterbury Cathedral and a monument, surmounted by a bust and a coat-of-arms was placed on the north wall of the nave.
The light of Orlando Gibbons's reputation was kept burning up until the early twentieth century by a number of his sacred compositions which were included in the repertory of various English Cathedrals. Since the early part of this century most of his works have been published and Gibbons has become recognised as one of the most important English composers of the early seventeenth century. Judging by the number of surviving copies of his music, he was one of the most popular church composers of the early seventeenth century ; his short service, in particular, circulated in no fewer than thirty sources. All his church music was written for the Anglican church and of his 40 or so anthems only two were published in his lifetime and these in William Leighton's Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowful Soule (London, 1614).
In the field of secular vocal music Gibbons only published one collection, The First Set of Madrigals and Mottets, apt for Viols and Voices (London, 1612), which is characterised by the choice of unusually serious and archaic texts. The choice of pieces are especially suited to Gibbons solemn and traditional temperament, and they are characterised (like most of his other vocal music) by a convincing sense of tonality, an unsurpassable instinct for word setting, and a remarkable sense of melodic beauty. Although the word "madrigal" is used in the title these pieces reveal little of the "light conceits" which pervaded this genre. Nor is the term "mottet" intented to convey-any affinity for church music, but instead to indicate that these pieces are of a serious flavour.
Gibbons's instrumental music falls naturally into two main categories: one for solo keyboard and the other for consort. Of the keyboard works the most substantial are the fantasias, based upon successions of imitative points, and the three section pavans and galliards, most of which have elaborated repeats. Some of his most outstanding pieces, where published in Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the first musice that ever was printed for the Virgtn-alls... (London, 1613) along with pieces by William Byrd and John Bull.
Of the instrumental consort In Nomines, Gibbons composed one in three parts, one in four parts and three in five parts. The four-part In Nomine is typical of the pieces in this genre. The In Nomine is built invariably on the plainsong melody of the first antiphon at Vespers on Trinity Sunday, "Gloria tibi Trinitas" and takes its name from the section "In Nomine Domini" from the Benedict us of Taverner's Mass "Gloria tibi Trinitas" where the cantus firmus is clearly stated with notes of equal value. It was in the In Nomine that the English composers of the Elizabethan age developed an idiomatic instrumental style with lively passages and figuration and a compass well beyond the range of voices. Before Orlando Gibbons, there were numerous instrumental consort In Nomines composed by Taverner, Tallis, Tye, Parsons, Robert White and others in addition to those which composed for keyboard.
The remaining instrumental consort music by Orlando Gibbons comprises six two-part fantasias, sixteen three-part fantasias, one three-part galliard, two four-part fantasias, one five-part pavan, four six-part fantasias, and a six-part pavan and galliard. It was Thomas Morley writing in 1597 who described the fantasia as "The most principal and chiefest kind of music which is made without a ditty [ i.e. text]... that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seem best in his own conceit. In this may more art be shown than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing, but that he may add, diminish, and alter at his pleasure". The fantasia arrived in England from Italy and was popularised in the form of keyboard and lute music and especially in the lute music of Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder who resided in England from 1562 to 1578. While the outstanding English master of the lute fantasia was John Dowland, it was William Byrd who elevated the fantasia to its eminent place in keyboard music in Elizabethan England. The antecedants of the English consort fantasia for viols can be found in the In Nomine and other plainsong based pieces and in the textless "songes" of William Cornysh, Robert Fayrfax, Tye and Tallis. While Robert White and Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder were early influences, it is William Byrd who stands out as a central figure in its development. His masterly and varied pieces in this genre for three to six viols established the form as the main kind of chamber music in England.
It was customary to have a chamber organ support the consort of viols "envenly, softly, and sweetly according to all" as Thomas Mace described it in 1676 when talking of the consort music performed during the earlier part of the seventeenth century ; doubling organ parts for the consort fantasias for viols appear in the sources for pieces by John Coprario, Thomas Lupo, Alfonso Ferrabosco to name a few.
Four of the fantasias on this record by Orlando Gibbons are scored for treble viol, bass and the "Great Dooble Base" (the last part of which can be either played on a violone tuned a fifth below the conventional consort bass viol or, as played on this record, a seven string bass viol). The parts in these four fantasias do not cross each other and the middle part often stands out quite clearly as the outer parts are separated by as much as four octaves. As in his other fantasias, Gibbons displays much freedom or rhythmic treatment and the first fantasia on this record provides a very fine example of this and of Gibbons's feeling for melodic beauty.
Perhaps the most interesting of his consort pieces are the nine fantasias found recorded here and first published in London in about 1620. The first four of these employ a clef grouping of treble, mezzo-soprano and baritone, and are constructed along traditional lines: one time-signature from beginning to end; sucessive entries of the voices in imitation; a homogeneous style for all three instruments; and a continuous musical structure with the joins between the imitative sections concealed as much as possible. The remaining five fantasias in the collection, however, make use of a clef grouping of two trebles and a bass, and are very sectional and written in a heterogeneous trio sonata style. Significantly Matthysz chose to publish together with pieces by John Coprario and Thomas Lupo the nine fantasias by Gibbons in Amsterdam in 1648, under the title XX Kontnklijke Fantasien. This would therefore make Orlando Gibbons (along with Coprario and Lupo) one of the first European composers to develop the trio sonata.