Funky Gibbons

I wasn’t originally intending to blog again in the lead-up to Jacobean Secrets but am prompted to do so by three factors:

  • Further work on the music we’re singing ahead of the final rehearsal
  • Personal preparation for my performance of Gibbons’s Fantazia of foure parts in the first half of the programme
  • The broadcast of a quite extra-ordinary arrangement for a modern instrumental chamber ensemble including piano and clarinet of Gibbons’s anthem This is the record of John, which meant little without the words, although it was a pleasant sound.

Outside the relatively closed worlds of cathedral-style choirs and viol consorts Orlando Gibbons is a shadowy figure – as obscure to many as the Latin motets that feature in the first half of JS. Yet he spent half his life as organist of the Chapel Royal, was acknowledged to be the leading keyboard player of the day and composed one of the most famous early 17th century songs – The Silver Swan. Our programme includes three of his fine English anthems, none of them published in his lifetime though preserved in multiple manuscript copies in cathedral libraries – a testament to their quality and popularity.

They first came into my life in the mid-1970s when I was an alto in the cathedral-style choir of St Michael’s College, Tenbury, where the library contained important musical manuscripts, which were used by the founder, Sir Frederick Ouseley, when he prepared for publication an important 19th century edition of Gibbons’s music. What impressed me then, and still impresses me now, is Gibbons’s feel for musical texture – how many parts there are and how they relate to each other. Just to give a few examples: in Hosanna to the Son of David the basses do not sing in the opening ‘fanfares’, but then give a new weight to the second section; O Lord in thy wrath builds from a gentle opening to a sonorous six-part cadence, which is followed by just three of the parts singing ‘for I am weak’ to striking effect; and the virtuoso eight-part counterpoint of O clap your hands is threatening to boil over when suddenly the ensemble is split into two four part choirs.

I’ve known the Fantazia of foure parts, one of the composer’s most noble keyboard works, for even longer, as it appeared in series of broadcast organ recitals played on historic instruments in the mid-1960s. Though it made an immediate impression, for one reason and another I didn’t learn it myself until 2013! Now, if I were asked to give a recital of my three favourite organ works it would be included despite its finger-breaking complexities, far harder than the Bach works that would comprise the rest of the programme (well, you were wondering, weren’t you?).