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The Music of Orlando Gibbons

Today is the anniversary of the death of Orlando Gibbons, in 1625. He was only 41 years old, but during that time he managed to amass a body of work that has lasted over 400 years. A generation younger than Byrd, Gibbons is the link between the great Renaissance composers, and the early baroque master, Purcell. The pianist Glenn Gould has said that Gibbons was his favorite composer, and recorded several albums playing his keyboard works.

Gibbons is famous for his secular madrigals, sacred church music, and instrumental and keyboard music. Here are some of my favorites of each. Check out the Spotify playlist above to listen.

Secular Madrigals:

The Silver Swan
A mournful song about only finding your voice when it’s too late.

The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached, unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
“Farewell, all joys; Oh death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

What is our Life – Gibbons sets a mournful poem to music. The poem, it is said, was written by Walter Ralgeigh before his execution, though the evidence for that is shaky. The lyrics are:

What is our life, our life? A play of passion.
Our mirth the music of division.
Our mother’s wombs the ‘tiring houses be,
where we are dress’d for this short comedy.
Heav’n the judicious sharp spectator is,
that sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves, that hide us from the searching sun
are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing to our latest rest;
Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest.

Sacred Music:

Almighty and Everlasting God
This is an anthem written in English, which was revolutionary just a generation earlier when the music went from being all in Latin, to being in English, providing everyday people with understanding of the words, and fulfilling a Protestant tenet of people having an individual relationship with God.

Almighty and everlasting God,
mercifully look upon our infirmities,
and in all our dangers and necessities
stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is the Record of John

An advent piece, John (whose record is being told) refers to John the Baptist, who is foretelling the coming of Jesus. The piece is divided into three sections, each beginning with a verse for solo contratenor followed by a full section, echoing words of the verse. The anthem was written at the request of William Laud, who was President of St John’s College, Oxford from 1611-1621; the St John to whom college is dedicated is John the Baptist.

Keyboard and Instrumental Music

The pianist Glenn Gould was a huge champion of Gibbons’ music, and he recorded several albums of himself playing it. He wrote: “ever since my teen-age years this music … has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.”

Listen on the Spotify playlist above, to experience some of Gibbons’ Greatest Hits.