article 12:   The Road Not Taken

The effects of a stroke recently necessitated breaking off a projected recording of pieces by Orlando Gibbons. It was a privilege to delve into his music for two years, and to visit Canterbury Cathedral to photograph his tomb monument and the Bodleian Library in Oxford to see the original of Parthenia. The following liner notes were already finished.


“Orlando Gibbons, who appears to such advantage as a church composer, is utterly contemptible in his productions for instruments, of whose powers he was ignorant...all the music, even for keyed-instruments, is dry, difficult, unaccented and insipid.” Such was the estimate which appeared in Dr. Burney’s “General History of Music” (1789). But then, this was the man who wrote that “the harsh scratching of the quills of a harpsichord can now no longer be borne,” and thought Graun was “excellent in melody, harmony, taste and learning.” At a different extreme we have Glenn Gould, who named Gibbons as his favorite composer, but opined that the “Lord Salisbury” galliard was a masterpiece in search of an instrument, and made piano recordings of his music so ghastly I wouldn’t have believed worse possible — until I heard recent harpsichord productions by younger colleagues who shall remain nameless.

While I was working on what was supposed to be my last CD, a Christmas present from an old friend in America arrived, wrapped, unbeknownst to the giver and to my immense astonishment, in paper printed with Orlando Gibbons’ “Fantazia of foure parts” [2]. It reminded me that when I was an 18-year-old at the Juilliard School in New York, a local label had considered making a solo LP of pieces by Gibbons with me. I made an audition tape; my girlfriend at the time listened to it, and counseled a few years’ patience in order to let my style mature. Now, exactly half a century later, I thought it would be appropriate to tie up a loose end.

Gibbons was born in 1583 into a Cambridge family of musicians. By 1603 he was already a member of the chapel of the new king, James I, rising later to the post of senior organist. He joined the private musical establishments of the king and Prince Charles, and added the post of organist of Westminster Abbey to his list of prestigious positions in 1623. Two years later he was dead from a cerebral hemorrhage, suffered as he was leaving Canterbury Cathedral after a service for the new (but still uncrowned) king Charles I, who was awaiting the arrival at Dover of his French bride. Gibbons’ widow erected the memorial bust shown on our cover in an aisle of the cathedral. The Roman numerals for the years, months and days of his life remain blank to this day; and indeed, Gibbons lives on in his music.

A report that Gibbons took a doctorate in music at Oxford in 1622 is still doubted in some quarters, which seems odd considering that Gibbons’ only surviving portrait shows him in the academic dress of a D.Mus.: a robe of cream-coloured silk, brocaded with an apple blossom pattern, facings and sleeves of cherry crimson silk, worn with a velvet bonnet. Orlando Gibbons was one of the first newly-minted doctors to walk through the door of the Schola Musicae which still stands in the Old Schools Quadrangle in front of Sir Thomas Bodley’s great library.

Gibbons’ keyboard production pales in importance beside his anthems, madrigals and consort music, yet it is one of the most precious jewels in my field’s heritage. It is terrifying to think how many masterpieces survive in a single source, some scattered as far afield as Berlin and New York. A number of unica are found in a manuscript by Benjamin Cosyn, who I believe added ornamentation; Parthenia also looks suspiciously overloaded. Two galliards ([19] and [23]) in a German MS have no ornaments at all, and pieces found in multiple sources vary in their ornamentation. These considerations, and the fact that the precise meaning of the one- and two-stroke signs is unknown, have encouraged me to make my own ornamentation scheme. I have taken some cues from Orlando’s son Christopher, whose keyboard music is in a style much like that of his father.

The title of a central source for Gibbons’ music, “PARTHENIA [Greek for “virginity”] or THE MAYDENHEAD of the first musicke that ever was printed for the VIRGINALLS”, is a threefold play on the English term for the harpsichord family, the initial print of keyboard music in Britain, and the young couple (both of whom were presumed virgins) to whom it was dedicated, “The High and Mighty and magnificent Princes Frederick Elector Palatine of the Rheine: and his betrothed Lady, Elizabeth the only daughter of my Lord the king...” It was offered in late 1612 or early 1613 by the engraver “while yet I may” — i.e., before the wedding night — as a gift upon a marriage that was a factor leading to the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War. Elizabeth’s fate as the “Winter Queen”, living in destitution in The Hague while her family disintegrated, could not have been imagined during the spectacular celebrations in London which were supposed to put an end to the melancholy of the late Elizabethan era. Elizabeth’s harpsichord teacher John Bull contributed seven pieces, his senior William Byrd eight, and Gibbons, the youngest of the trio, six. My teacher Gustav Leonhardt was astounded at how badly scrambled the engraving was when he tried to play from his newly-arrived facsimile in 1972. The new technique of engraving on copper plates was the only way to print complex keyboard notation on two staves, but this first British effort went askew.

Between the engagement and the wedding, the greatest disaster of the reign struck: Henry, Prince of Wales, a brilliant and charming lad who might have steered England away from the civil war which erupted under his vainglorious brother, died suddenly at age 18. His death produced an unparalleled outpouring of music. One of Gibbons’ contributions was a five-voice madrigal, part III of which I have transcribed here [11].

Yet if that age had frosted o’er his brow,
Or if his face had furrowed been with years,
I would not so bemoan that he is dead,
I would have been more niggard of my tears.
But O, the Sun new-rose is gone to bed,
And lilies in their Springtime hang their head.

I know of no more heart-rending expression of grief in any medium, nor of a better example of how powerful the nuancing of a single note can be in a system governed by strict rules. Sunset is expressed in a falling octave, and the lilies hang their heads in a brief duo which turns out upon repetition to be a double canon, “four parts in two”, which is introduced so modestly that I didn’t notice it for nearly a year. (In his preface to the publication, Gibbons, echoing a similar comment by Byrd, says, “Experience tells us that songs of this nature are usually esteemed as they are well or ill performed.” The same applies to an even greater degree to harpsichord music.)

Parthenia’s “Fantazia of foure parts” [2] reaches a state of such desolation before its resolution in triumph that I feel it, too, must have been composed in the shadow of Henry’s death. Another of Gibbons’ six wedding gifts, the most resplendent of all galliards [4], is tinged with sadness in its last strain.

Both this and the other Parthenia galliard are entitled “Galiardo”, a fake Italian word. Gibbons’ own given name is a reflection of an English fascination with Italian music that went back to Henry VIII, and Italianate aspects are prominent in Gibbons’ keyboard music. He didn’t continue the virtuosic English keyboard fantasia of the generation before him; instead, he took the word “fantasia” at its original meaning — an instrumental work of strict polyphony developing a limited number of simple themes in imitation through the voices. The word continued to be used thus in English consort music and in northern European keyboard music well into the 17th century, while elsewhere the form evolved into the Italian ricercar, the Iberian tiento and the Germanic fugue. Gibbons’ sober fantasias are remarkable for their long intertwining lines that never seem to end, for their ingenious sequences of linked motifs, and for their expressivity, to which end Gibbons employs all his contrapuntal mastery. One monumental work [9] is particularly overwhelming. Another [17] combines two themes from the outset which were the first and last themes of Byrd’s greatest fantasy for viol consort. Bach used them both for his finest fugue, and Gibbons comes close to matching its glory. He may have had a source of inspiration in the complex fantasias of the young Girolamo Frescobaldi, who is known to have shown his to all the prominent musicians in Brussels in 1607; his audience would have included the English Catholic exile Peter Philips.

Track [21] has been transmitted to posterity under various names, but it is in fact a canzona, another Italian polyphonic form, borrowed from France by Italians and defined for the keyboard by Andrea Gabrieli. The magnificent 6-part fantasia for viol consort [24], the contemporary keyboard transcription of which is the basis for our version, is another exploration of canzona form. Gibbon’s authorship has been unjustly doubted because of its use of a rising chromatic fourth, which was nothing new in Italy. Running basses like those showing up here and there on this disc had also been used in Italy for decades before Gibbons died, and the “Preludium” from Parthenia [20] looks like a later type of Italian toccata.

The work known as a “Fantasia for Double Organ” [13] has nothing to do with the usual fantasia procedures, and is actually another Italianate experiment: a new-fangled sonata. One instrumentation — two violins and a solo bass taken by a viol, bassoon or trombone — was particularly popular, and Gibbons may have become acquainted with it through John Coprario (whose name was actually Cooper), his colleague in Prince Charles’ private music. Coprario’s fantasia-suites open with just such a movement in quickly varying moods, accompanied by an organ part which follows the three main lines closely (basso continuo was not introduced into England until much later). I think Benjamin Cosyn, whose manuscript is the only source, got ahold of the organ part of a lost Gibbons trio-sonata — possibly from Christopher, who was taught by Cosyn at the Charterhouse School after his father died — and saw a chance to show off the new two-manual organ there, until it was dismantled under Cromwell’s Puritan regime. Cosyn’s changes of manual make no musical sense, and his attempt to play the same trick with the next fantasia in his book had to be broken off when he saw it wouldn’t work after a few bars.

Most of the pieces going here by the title “Prelude” are found in manuscripts under various names — verse, voluntary, fantasy — and sometimes more than one in different sources of the same piece. The copyists seem not to have known quite what to do with them, nor did the editor of the old standard edition (Musica Britannica), whose lead I have followed to avoid confusion. Their introductory function seems clear enough.

By Gibbons’ time the pavan and galliard were hardly danced anymore; instrumental versions had become objects of nostalgia (like the envelope icons on email programs), or a means of memorializing the dead (who were likely to have danced them in their prime), or vehicles for showing off virtuosity ([4]). The galliard’s tempo, which was in any case never as fast as they have recently been taken, was gradually reduced to “a Slow, and Large Triple-Time, and (commonly) Grave, and Sober” (Mace, 1670). The old dances were replaced by a newly fashionable pair: the Germanic alman, allmaine or allemande (musically “very Ayrey, and Lively”, in spite of its sedate steps) and the swift Italian corranto (the courante in France, where it soon slowed drastically).

The old coupling of pavan and galliard is lacking in Gibbons, except for the memorial pair in Parthenia ([6,7]). Lord Salisbury was Sir Robert Cecil, the son of Queen Elizabeth’s chief counsellor. He also succeeded to the highest offices of state in spite of physical deformities that shortened his life. The marquess finished building the new Hatfield House the year before he died. Even his “Galiardo” is not expressly connected to “The lord of Salisbury his Pavin” which it follows. It could be the prototype of another galliard which seems to me to pass from the vigor of life to transfiguration after death [19]. This latter’s first strain ends with a powerful rising anabasis, often used as a resurrection figure; it also quotes and extends the sad song “Will you walk the woods so wild” in its second strain, and its third ends by repeating the final bars of the first, a procedure otherwise unknown. I would like to think this splendid galliard, which survives by sheer serendipity in a single German manuscript, is a memorial to William Byrd, who died at his country home in Stondon Massey, Essex, two years before Gibbons. Byrd was fond of “Will you walk...”; he wrote beautiful variations on the tune, and inserted it into his hexachord fantasy for two players.

Other pavans and galliards show signs of being what the French called tombeaux (tombstones) for unspecified persons. One [12] can be assigned to Prince Henry with some certainty, since, besides a quote from Dowland’s “Pavana Lachrimae”, it also has a passage found in Gibbons’ mourning song, “Nay, let me weep”. The A-minor pavan [18] quotes an anthem composed at the request of a Dean of Windsor a week before his death. The text from Psalm 39 / verse 13 at that point is, “O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen”; the keyboard version resembles a grandfather clock ticking away life’s “handbreadth” (verse 5), like the final movement of Part I of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”. The only source for this sober little masterpiece is a 19th-century publication. The original manuscript was auctioned off at Sotheby’s in 1917. Since part of that major collection was said to have gone to Japan, my wife and I searched the remains of the library of a likely recipient (a music-loving scion of the Tokugawa shoguns) in Wakayama — but the source seems to have perished.

The galliard “Lady Hatton” offers a contrast to the mood of melancholy found in so much of Gibbons. Sir Christopher Hatton, godson of Queen Elizabeth’s chancellor, was a neighbor in New Palace Yard in Westminster, and a close friend to whom Gibbons dedicated his book of madrigals. “Most of them were composed in your own house”, the preface tells us, and Gibbons’ first two children were named after Hatton and his lady. She seems to have been a jolly chatterbox, if one can judge by this very early example of a personal portrait in harpsichord music — a genre made famous in the next century by François Couperin.

But melancholy does prevail here, as in today’s world, where the lights of democracy, learning, and simple kindness are going out. King James I, one of the weirdest monarchs in British history, is frankly described by the 1911 Britannica as duplicitous, inconsistent, and slovenly. Gibbons may have been obliged to accompany the dancing lessons given to Prince Charles by the king’s supremely corrupt favorite, Buckingham. His Majesty’s Catholic leanings and the projected “Spanish Match” for his son terrified his subjects, and the endless troubles with the Scots and the Puritans would end with Gibbons’ last royal master’s head severed in front of Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House.

Gibbons must have known Shakespeare, who, shortly after the young organist joined the Chapel Royal, penned the most pessimistic lines ever composed (Macbeth, Act 5 scene 5). It would be silly to call Orlando Gibbons “Shakespearian”, but his range, from regal splendor to the blackest depths, might be thought comparable, and is certainly as unique in the period’s music as the poet’s was in its literature.

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