|Sunday 18th November 2012 at 3pm|
Glebe Music Festival
In conjunction with The Glebe Society Inc
Josie and the Emeralds
Programme notes by Brooke Green
Orlando Gibbons was a leading composer of vocal, keyboard and ensemble or consort music in early 17th century England. As a teenager, he was a chorister at King’s College Cambridge. Then in 1603 at the age of 20 he became a musician at the Chapel Royal for James I. In 1605 he was formally sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal where he gained a reputation as one of England’s finest keyboard players. A contemporary report described the organ as having been “touched by the best finger of that age, Mr Orlando Gibbons” (Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). In 1617 he became one of a small group of progressive musicians working in the private chapel of Charles, Prince of Wales. In 1619 he was appointed virginalist in the Royal Privy Chamber. By 1625, his sudden death, probably from a brain haemorrhage, was widely mourned, in particular in court circles.
It seems an anomaly that the music of Orlando Gibbons is not better known and what is mostly performed is his sacred and keyboard music. Granted, his consort music circulated only amongst an elite circle of musicians during the 17th century (Purcell was one of them) but this has been readily available since 1982. These days this music is still rarely heard by the general public. What a great shame that is!
While all of Gibbons’ consort music is immensely satisfying to experience, his set of six Fantasias for six-part viol consort stand out as a masterpiece within the genre. Surely he must have been planning something significant by choosing to compose six Fantasias for six viols? Perhaps he was aiming for a type of perfection of the number six? At a time when viols had six strings, is this their badge of honour? But closer examination reveals that combinations of 3 X 2 might be more significant. His 6 part viol consort is made up of 2 each of treble, tenor and bass viols; there are three pairs of key centres: Fantasias No. 1 and 2 are in G, Nos. 3 and 4 are in D, and Nos. 5 and 6 are in A. Rhythmically, he wittily plays with combinations of duple and triple time, constantly trying to confound us.
Technical considerations aside, these Fantasias are appealing for their expressive sense of drama and especially for the way they move from one emotion to another. We might think they are variously melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric: little worlds themselves. For according to the Renaissance theories of humors, these respectively align with Earth, Water, Air and Fire. But even from a modern perspective we can’t fail to miss the juxtaposition of profound, beautiful serenity with breathless excitement. (As a performed, the trick is to stay cool-headed when experiencing all this).
How does he achieve this? Historically, Gibbons could be seen as sitting on the cusp of the Renaissance and Early Baroque. For instance, he is a master of counterpoint (setting one voice or part against another) but he combines this with a sense of propulsion or forward-looking motion that is usually more characteristic of later composers. Structurally, each Fantasia is often in a tripartite form: either fast, slow, fast; or slow, fast, slow; or such as in the case of Fantasia No. 4 which has a middle section where the music appears to run backwards, then forwards! But whatever form this takes, just having a contrasting middle section is a departure from standard Renaissance models. Harmonically, Gibbons makes use of sequential patterns such as the circle of fifths and often sets up a sense of expectation that again is more ‘Baroque’ than ‘Renaissance’. But this is all kept within the Renaissance Fantasia style: point against point, imitations constantly unfolding into developments of this imitation, all at the highest level.
The wit and vitality of his instrumental music is often remarked upon, particularly because this is such a contract to the seemingly all pervasive seriousness of his vocal works. His six-part Pavan and Galliard is a fine example. Here the constant vacillations between duple and triple time, overlaid with a polyphonic complexity seem to be deliberately designed to confuse potential dancers and to challenge musicians to lose their place. Miscount one beat and you are lost!
On the other hand, the sheer beauty of the openings of Fantasias 2, 3 and 6, and especially Gibbons’ In Nomine No. 1 is breathtaking. In 16th and 17th century England, the In Nomine was a favoured form of composition for hundreds of English instrumental works and these were all based on the Gloria tibi Trinitas chant from a mass by John Taverner. For his In Nomine No. 1, Gibbons pays homage to Taverner by quoting the same opening. About halfway through, the polyphony (many voices sounding at once) briefly gives way to homophony (single voice) for a sublime harmonic moment. This is replicated, or derives from, a similar passage in his Fantasia No. 5. But moments such as these are just little jewels on the horizon of what seems to be a vision of paradise….
Gibbons’ Madrigals and Motets (1612) contain nearly all his secular vocal music. The seriousness of this collection, indicated by the term Motet may be attributed to the death in the same year of that great advocate of music, Henry Prince of Wales. But equally, the spirit of melancholy could be said to be pervasively celebrated in the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages, and here it is readily characterized by Walter Raleigh’s What is our life. The gloriously expiring Silver Swan is sometimes said to be analogous to the death of Prince Henry but is has just as often been interpreted as a warning that with the death of its patron and icon Elizabeth I, the demise of the English madrigal was imminent. We can infer this in his final line: “More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”. The Madrigals and Motets are dedicated to Gibbons’ patron Sir Christopher Hatton whom he praises for his ‘unequalled love unto Musicke’ and for providing many of the texts. Fair is the rose is a lament for the death of a female relative of Hatton.
In the age of Gibbons, performing contemporary music was very much part of the spirit of that age. Brooke Green, Sophie Ryan and the Emeralds hope to continue that tradition. Miniatures are arrangements Brooke Green made in consultation with Ross Edwards, of some of his works for piano. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Eliza Aria was originally composed for soprano and orchestra and, in 2005, Brooke Green was fortunate to produce its first recording for CD (ABC Classics). Soon after, this track became part of an ad for Lloyds Bank in the UK where it achieved pop status in terms of frequent radio airplay. For the last year of so, it has been the theme music for Radio National’s Late Night Live and has been performed in many arrangements.
Brooke Green wrote Spirits and Dreams and Graceful Ghost with a notion that we in the 21s century can only hope to evoke fragments of the past and these musical motifs will inevitably be transformed by our own dreams. Spirits and Dreams begins with a few renaissance spirits lurking about and these become overlaid with haughty baroque ones. Finally, they all just disappear in a puff of smoke, as spirits do. Graceful Ghost is also an homage to William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag and while it bears no musical connection, it is hoped that it recreates something of that haunting spirit.
My Mind a Kingdom was inspired by Sir Edward Dyer’s declaration that he bows to no outside authority. Brooke Green found it very useful to contain this musical setting within a basic Pavan form. Sometimes structures can be very helpful.