Orlando Gibbons Biography

Orlando_GibbonsBaptised 25 December 1583
Died: 5 June 1625

Orlando Gibbons is one of England’s great early music composers and the last great composer of the polyphonic style. He follows  that of William Byrd chronologically being 40 years his junior though they died within two years of each other (1623 Byrd and 1625 Gibbons).

Gibbons was a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, under his elder brother who was Master of the Choristers.  Later he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he served as an organist. Later he was able to add the position of organist at Westminster Abbey to this role.

He wrote outstanding music for the Church of England as well as many wonderful madrigals, consort music and keyboard works.

Orlando Gibbons was not only a great English composer but also a marvellous virginalist, and organist of the late Tudor and early Jacobean periods. A leading composer during his lifetime and a favorite among Renaissance and Early Music enthusiasts and musicians around the world.

In the 20th century, famed eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) named Gibbons as his favorite composer, Gould compared him to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Anton Webern (1883-1945). Gibbons’ memorial service is commemorated every June at King’s College Chapel at Cambridge.

The Young Orlando Gibbons

Gibbons was born in Oxford, England. He was the youngest of William Gibbons’ four sons. William was a town piper for Oxford and later for Cambridge, a musical background for his children but one they would all surpass. Orlando’s eldest brother Edward (1568-1650) became the master of the choristers at Cambridge, and his next brother, Ellis (1573-1603), was also a composer of some repute. Ellis’ works were published along with the great Thomas Morley’s (c1557-1602) in a collection of madrigals published in 1601.

The family moved from Oxford to Cambridge between Orlando’s birth and his christening. In 1596, when Gibbons was thirteen, he became a chorister at King’s College and stayed in the choir for two years. He attended the college between 1599 and 1606, earning a Bachelor of Music. He later went on to earn a Doctorate of Music at Oxford in 1622.

Orlando Gibbons served as organist to the Chapel Royal from 1615 until his death. He was appointed to the position by King James I.  In 1623, he was promoted to senior organist at the Chapel Royal with the famous Thomas Tomkins (1572-1576), as his junior organist. Gibbons was also a keyboard player in the privy chamber of the court of Prince Charles (later King Charles I) and an organist at Westminster Abbey a role that Dr John Blow and Henry Purcell would later also have.

Orlando Gibbons Keyboard Works

Gibbons began composing at the age of 16. By the age of 29, he had published keyboard music in the most prestigious publication of keyboard music of the time, Parthenia (c1612).

His work was intended for virginals. During this period Virginals implied any of the plucked keyboard instruments including harpsichord, clavichord, chamber organ, muselaar (a virginal with the keyboard on the right end of the box), or the virginal as we understand it today. The piano was still about a hundred years off from being invented.

Orlando Gibbons Sacred Music

Gibbons garnered a reputation of being one of the most important English composers of sacred music in the early 17th century. He wrote several Anglican services that were popular in their day and remain so to this day. He also wrote over 30 anthems, some imposing and dramatic such as O clap your hands, while others were more colorful and expressive like See, the word is incarnate, and This is the record of John. These two and O clap your hands, are probably his most famous and frequently performed works.

Orlando Gibbons Instrumental Music

Orlando Gibbons instrumental music includes more than 30 elaborate contrapuntal viol fantasias and over 40 masterful keyboard pieces. His madrigals were published in 1612 and are largely serious in tone such as The Silver Swan. He was certainly one of the most versatile composers of his time.

Six of his pieces are in the first printed collection of English music, Parthenia, which was dedicated to Frederick, King of Germany and Lady Elizabeth, the daughter of King James I. Gibbons was the youngest of the three contributors. The other two being John Bull (c1562-1628) and William Byrd (c1540-1623), two of the most famous keyboard composers of their time. Gibbons’ surviving 45 keyboard works along with his polyphonic fantasia and dance forms providing the most pieces in the Parthenia.

Orlando Gibbons and Counterpoint

His writing shows full mastery of three and four-part counterpoint. It’s the technique that Bach wuld take to its ultimate expression some hundred years later. And in Gibbons music like Bach on occasions there is a melodic dip into atonality which would itself not reappear until the 20th Century with Schoenberg and Webern. The fantasias are gloriously complex, multi-sectional pieces, that take several subjects simultaneously and imitatively. Gibbons’ expresses an amazing ability to develop a simple musical idea and develop it in almost infinite variations.

Orlando Gibbons Choral Music

Gibbons’ counterpoint skill is also apparent in his choral music combined with his wonderful gift for melody. He wrote sacred music, including full and verse anthems, services, and psalms, plus secular madrigals, fantasies, and works for viols, and compositions for virginals.

He wrote over 30 anthems, 25 of with a high level of polyphonic development for viols in the solo sections, and during which the vocal soloists repeat the text from the choral sections. He also wrote two Anglican services, some psalms, a Te Deum, and hymn tunes. He produced two major settings of Evensong: the Short Service including Nunc dimitis and the Second Service, which was lengthy and combined verse and full sections.

Gibbons also wrote 14 madrigals and consort songs as well as over 30 freely expressive fantasias for viol, plus some slow processional dances called pavans, and more upbeat dances called galliards, In Nomines and allemandes.

Orlando Gibbons Death

His death in 1625 was sudden and very unpleasant. It has been posited that Gibbons died of the plague, which was doing the rounds in England at the time. Because of the sudden nature of the death the two physicians present at his passing were ordered to perform an autopsy.  A copy of the autopsy report is in The National Archives and states that “he went into convulsions, his eyes bulging.” He lost speech, sight, and hearing before becoming apoplectic and ultimately paralysed. Just before he died he became lethargic or “profoundly asleep,” and they couldn’t wake him. With no evidence on his body from the plague they – queue the gory bit – opened his skull to release a gush of water and blood, and found blackness in the outside area of the brain. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Orlando Gibbons died and was buried at Canterbury and there is a monument to him in Canterbury Cathedral. His wife Elizabeth died in her mid-30s a little over a year later, leaving Edward, Orlando’s eldest brother, to care for their orphaned children. Of these, the second son, the first of Orlando’s surviving children, Christopher Gibbons (1615-1676), became a musician.


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