The rich, velveteen sound of the English classical tradition, exemplified in the 20th century by Ralph Vaughn Williams, has deep historical roots. One of the most significant and influential nodes in that root system is a composer who doesn’t get enough attention. Born in Oxford and trained at Cambridge, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was considered one of England’s finest musicians in his day. He excelled equally at writing both sacred and secular music, and both vocal and instrumental. King James I and King Charles I each favored him with prime appointments. This guy was a very big deal.
In an impressive collaborative effort, three ensembles recently teamed up to celebrate Gibbons. In Chains of Gold (Signum Classics) is the first volume in a promising series called “The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem.” Pre-Restoration means before 1660, when the English monarchy was restored to power after decades of exile. A verse anthem is basically the English term for a motet, although it also tends to include passages of solo singing.
The forces on this exceptional album are the viol quintet Fretwork, the vocal and instrumental group Magdalena Consort, and the early brass-and-winds ensemble His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts (sic). Many of these musicians also performed together on the 2003 Orlando Gibbons: With a Merrie Noyse. This collective, which calls itself the Orlando Gibbons Project, and is under the direction of William Hunt. Hunt’s leadership, paired with some of early music’s most skilled practitioners, brings out the complex beauty of Gibbons’ craft.
The pieces performed here are “consort anthems,” so called because they use an ensemble of instrumentalists (traditionally viols) as accompaniment rather than just organ. Listen to the delicate, patient way that Magdalena Consort tenor Charles Daniels spins out the opening verse of “Behold, thou hast made my days,” a text about the brevity of life in comparison with the vastness of God’s creation. Fretworks accompanies this one, with phrasing that mirror’s the singer’s passionate declamation:
In “Great King of Gods,” the Majestys demonstrate how sensitively sackbuts (basically proto-trombones) and cornetts (not the same as a cornet, the term refers to an instrument made of a single piece of curved wood, with an ivory cup-shaped mouthpiece) can be played. Gibbons is at his contrapuntal finest as he layers instrumental lines against the voices. If you ever get a chance to hear this repertoire played live in a church, don’t miss it!
We’re in a bit of a lean period for early music recordings following the 1980s and ʼ90s heyday. This means that second-tier-famous names like Gibbons don’t get as frequent new recordings as they used to, making In Chains of Gold particularly valuable and welcome.
That’s not to say that there have been no other new Gibbons recordings in the past year or so – just not of vocal performances. Gibbons was among the first composers to devote equal energy to both instrumental and vocal music, and there’s been enthusiastic work done on the instrumental repertoire of late.
Many of his string works are available on the recent Ricercar release Gibbons: Fancies for the Viols featuring the ensemble L’Archéron, under the direction of François Joubert-Caillet. While the performances don’t have quite the intricate sculpting of Fretwork’s, this is high-quality playing and some great examples of “chamber music” from back when that term just meant “played in the house” as opposed to “played in church.” Here’s a six-voice fantasia:
Meanwhile, composer David Warin Solomons is keeping alive an authentic, age-old practice of creating instrumental music where there was none. Re-imaginings of madrigals and motets counted among the most common types of instrumental music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Here’s how the process has always worked: First, an arranger hears an inspiring piece of vocal music. Take this breathtaking 2018 performance of Gibbon’s anthem “Drop Drop Slow Tears” by the Cambridge Chorale:
Then the arranger buys the written music (or picks up the whole score by ear if he can; or, these days, downloads the free Wiki score file) and composes an arrangement for his preferred instrumentation that preserves the original harmonies and polyphony as much as possible.
Here’s Solomons’ version of “Drop Drop Slow Tears” for wind quartet. Warning: It’s “played” with digital samples, not actual wind instruments. Solomons is simply putting out an example of what this piece could sound like if performers or teachers purchased his arrangement. That underlying entrepreneurial aspect has not changed since Gibbons’ time. Is it stealing? Yup, by today’s standards, if it were an arrangement of a protected work. Musical copyright was in its infancy in the 16th century, so you can do whatever you want with Gibbons’ tunes.
Gibbons has an appeal across genres these days, too. Electric jazz guitarist Noël Akchoté self-published Orlando Gibbons: Hymns & Anthems, a new album featuring his own arrangements. Here’s his take on the five-voice madrigal “Dainty Fine Bird”:
There’s another recent Gibbons project intended to encourage performance of this great music. Founded by tenor Matthew Curtis, the company Choral Tracks LLC provides digital rehearsal materials for choirs. Gibbon’s most famous work, the madrigal “The Silver Swan,” gets the Choral Tracks treatment here, with 15 different sound mixes to emphasize, mute, and rebalance the various parts.
It’s certainly not among the great recordings of “The Silver Swan” (try the classic King’s Singers version or John Rutter directing the Cambridge Singers), but that’s not its purpose. You won’t find a more helpful tool for learning how Gibbons constructed this short but complex piece. You can listen to (and sing along with) all 15 mixes for free on Spotify:
Obviously, I hope that more top-flight ensembles devote themselves to recording Gibbons in the near future. But until then, anything that keeps this music alive is a positive step.