Gibbons was born in Oxford, in 1583, to a family of instrumentalists and composers. He was trained as a choirboy at King’s College, Cambridge, where he later matriculated. While still and undergraduate, he was appointed Organist of the Chapel Royal and took his Mus.B. from Cambridge the following year, 1607. In 1622, he was created doctor of music by the University of Oxford and composed an anthem, “O clap your Hands,” for the occasion. In the following year he became organist of Westminster Abbey.
As Jeremy Summerly has written, “Gibbons wrote a significant amount of functional English church music, that’s to say predominantly syllabic music (in which the words are set with one note per syllable) for the Anglican rite of services, responses, and hymn tunes, whose purpose was to communicate the texts clearly. He was a master of this craft, although from time to time he also impressed with his contrapuntal ingenuity without ever detracting from his basic mission, which was to make the words audible and their setting succinct. The ‘Gloria’ of the Nunc Dimittis from his Short Service is a case in point, where the canon between the two upper voices adds fairy dust to what is, at root, a workaday carving.
Whether in his best madrigals or anthems, Gibbons’ unique genius lay in telling a story to musical accompaniment. Secular examples include gems such as ‘The Silver Swan’ and the tripartite ‘Nay let me weep,’ whose effectiveness makes us want to believe that it was written as a mourning song for the premature death of Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1612. On a larger scale, the full anthem ‘O Clap your Hands’ would have been an arresting musical accompaniment to an Oxford degree ceremony in 1622. The famous verse anthems ‘This is the Record of John’ and ‘See, See the Word is Incarnate’ achieve their magnificent effects in an entirely different way.
It is the mark of his ability as a setter of English words that, once these stories have been told through Gibbons’ mouth, the texts seem naked unless dressed in the music of this Jacobean genius. As with all great artists who meet an early death, it is tempting to imagine what he might have created after June 1625 had he not been ‘deprived of life by a lamentable rush of blood to the head and the cruel hand of fate.'”1
The first settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis I ever learned were from Gibbons’ masterful Short Service. Although I prefer them unaccompanied, as indeed they should be sung, the recording below was executed with such force and feeling by the Oxford Camerata that we will forgive them the continuo.
1. Jeremy Summerly, “Orlando Gibbons,” BBC Music Magazine, accessed June 13, 2013, http://www.classical-music.com/topic/orlando-gibbons.