Choral Evensong Blog: Sunday 4th March

Orlando Gibbons

Great! Another Gibbonsfest for our March Choral Evensong! In fact it’s only the Byrd Responses which prevent a full house. Gibbons did write two sets of Preces with accompanying psalms, but apparently no responses for after the creed. I have always believed that John Barnard, in his First Book of Selected Church Musick of 1641, finished what Gibbons had started, but I can’t find any evidence for this at the moment. However, there is every reason to believe that, were this completion to exist, it would not be as good as the Byrd, which is probably the best of the early settings.

So we have the Short Service, the anthem “Behold thou hast made my days” and, as voluntary, the Fantasia in A minor by Gibbons. All this means that, with any luck, Jonathan will be playing the fine chamber organ. Orlando Gibbons was one of the greatest of the ‘Tudor’ composers, though most of his music was written in the reign of James I. He was one of the youngest (born 1583) and one of the most adventurous, and one wonders what he would have achieved had he not died at the early age of 41. There are several musicians who surprisingly have claimed Gibbons as their favourite composer, including the pianist Glenn Gould (yes, that’s surprising!). And Boris Ord, Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, chose Gibbons for what must have been one of the earliest single composer LPs of early music (1956). The follow-up LP (1959) of David Willcocks, Ord’s successor, completed a comprehensive view of Gibbons’ church music.

Gibbons’ Short Service is almost certainly one of the few canticle settings to have been sung regularly since its composition. The idea of a ‘short’ service, of which there are many examples, is that the words are rarely repeated and there is limited counterpoint. Gibbons managed to introduce interesting imitation within these constraints. The canon between treble and alto in the Nunc Dimittis Gloria is a masterpiece, but so well integrated into the music that it can easily be missed.

The anthem “Behold thou hast made my days as it were a span long” is a setting of the Prayer Book version of Psalm 39, verses 6-8 and 13-15, “made at the entreaty of Doctor Maxie, Dean of Windsor, the same day sennight before his death” (heading in a major manuscript at Christ Church, Oxford). As Anthony Maxey died on 3 May 1618, we can not only date this anthem, but also cerebrate in our performance 400 years since its composition. The anthem is also a good example of three matters which have caused debate over the last century: pitch, voice and instrumentation.

Pitch, very much interlinked with voice. I’ll look at four recordings of the anthem. It was recorded in the early 1950s for volume IV of The History of Music in Sound. By this time, the idea that choral music of the late 16th and early 17th century should be transposed up a minor third was well established. What Gibbons wrote in A minor was sung in this recording by the tenor Alfred Hepworth and the choir of Hampstead Parish Church in C minor, despite the solo part going up to B flat. The wonderful countertenor Alfred Deller had no trouble in singing at the same pitch for his recording released in 1971. More recently a group formed around Fretwork, the consort of viols (you can’t say viol consort), produced a recording with tenor soloist in the original key but with A at 466 cycles per second against a norm these days of A at 440, so effectively sounding in B flat minor. What’s the difference, you may well ask: well, only if you’re using unequal temperament, and that only works if you’ve got transposing instruments such as viols where you can tighten the strings. Jonathan certainly won’t be using this key, because the organ is at fixed pitch and he declared recently after playing Nicholson in D flat (5 flats in key signature as in B flat minor) that any key with more than 4 sharps or flats was an offence against the organist’s sensibilities – or words to that effect! Lastly, the Jesus College Choir’s recording of 2016 goes back to the original key of A minor with tenor soloist.

As for Voice. The argument about using a lower key than was prevalent in much of the last century centres on the alto line: there is a widely held view that in Gibbons’ time it was sung by high tenors and not falsettists or male altos, which only became the norm in cathedral choirs in the late 17th century. The part books of the Gibbons period are marked ‘contratenor’. So was Alfred Deller a contratenor, countertenor or a male alto? The French don’t have quite the same problem. The term haute-contre is applied to a high tenor singing in natural voice and not falsetto, and there are many heroic roles for such a voice in the operas of Lully and Rameau, while the Italian operas of the time (including Handel, of course) gave such roles to castrati. Therefore, if you’re using altos, male or female, you’ll probably use high pitch: for high tenors, it’ll be lower.

And then there’s instrumentation. Only the Jesus College recording of the four mentioned uses organ accompaniment; the others use strings, modern instruments for the HMS recording, and viols for the other two. Many of the early manuscripts of Gibbons anthems have the accompaniment written out on four separate lines suggesting instruments, and the counterpoint is clearly intricately worked out. The result is not possible to play with two hands. But it is not at all clear that instrumental ensembles were regularly available in churches. Several questions, then, but not many answers. And in the end the music speaks for itself whoever is singing, at what pitch and with what accompaniment.

The voluntary, Fantasia in A minor (Musica Britannica vol XX no.10), is a good example of the shape that Gibbons brought to his music. A long imitation point on a theme with decreasing note-lengths leads to a section with semiquaver scale passages in alternating hands, a challenging piece by a composer described also in a report on an official visit by the French Ambassador to Westminster Abbey in 1624 as “the best finger of that age”.

Damian Cranmer

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