Anglican Notables – Orlando Gibbons – 5 June

Anglican Notables – Orlando Gibbons (Composers, Musicians) – 5 June

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Orlando Gibbons – Born ca. 1583, baptized 25 December 1583 (Oxford, England) – Died Whitsunday, 5 June 1625 (Canterbury, England).

Musician: Composer; Gentleman of the Chapel Royal; Organist at Westminster Abbey

[Image: Nicholas Stone, Orlando Gibbons Memorial in Canterbury Cathedral. ]

[ Link to Orlando Gibbons, “Magnificat” from the Short [First] Service ]

By his thirties, Orlando Gibbons was already esteemed England’s leading composer and organist.  William Byrd had retired to Essex, and John Bull had moved to the Netherlands, which opened the field for attaining pre-eminence in England’s musical world.  But Gibbons established his reputation on the merits of his own versatility and craftsmanship, writing significant works for nearly every musical form of his day, not least his services, anthems, and hymn tunes.  Alas, Gibbons died prematurely, in his early forties.  Considered by some “a transitional figure from the Renaissance to the Baroque,” Gibbons’s untimely death could be one of several reasons the musical Baroque did not flourish in England as it did on the continent.  (For more on the Anglican musical heritage and the Baroque, see Pauley, 198-203. Henry Purcell and G. F. Handel were indeed to make significant contributions to the Baroque in England. But the lasting impact of the later Baroque on Anglican church music was rather muted.)

It is likely, however, that had Gibbons lived longer and had other factors not militated against  greater prominence for the Baroque aesthetic in England, Gibbons would have paved the way for a particularly English expression of the Baroque, especially in church music.  Gibbons had already demonstrated a clear appreciation for text declamation, following the lead of his older colleague, William Byrd and of Byrd’s older colleague, Thomas Tallis.  Not that the Baroque aesthetic does not appreciate text declamation—and even more so than could easily be the case with intricate Renaissance polyphony!  But by the time of his death, Gibbons had already demonstrated an appreciation for setting texts with an ear more attuned to meditation than to the drama and exaggeration so beloved by the Baroque. 

It is easy to imagine William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, both of whom were contemporaries in the Chapel Royal, having a discussion on how best to write music for the liturgy.  This discussion would certainly have included words very like the following, which Byrd set down in writing and that indicate a composer engaged in lectio divina.  Byrd stated that when he write liturgical music, he acknowledged the “hidden power … in the thoughts underlying the words themselves; so that, as one meditates upon the sacred words and constantly and seriously considers them, the right notes, in some inexplicable manner, suggest themselves.”  (Fellowes, 80, quoted in Long, 259.)  Tallis and Byrd had been pre-eminent among England’s Tudor Masters in setting the standard for the aesthetic and liturgical ideal of the Anglican musical heritage: restraint and dignity in setting of texts. 

There was also an aspect of literary aesthetics involved.  The ideal of “impeccable verbal declamation” was sought partly in appreciation of the “high literary culture of the age of Shakespeare and of the King James Bible.”  (Temperley)  But careful verbal declamation also honors English Christianity’s patristic/monastic roots that include prominence given to the role of liturgy and a liturgy that privileges listening to, and meditating upon, Scripture.  Indeed, the expectation of the compilers of the Prayer Book was that “the people by [their] daily hearyng of holy Scripture read in the Churche” (Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer) should maintain the somewhat higher liturgical standard of third- and fourth-century ascetics who emphasized listening to Scripture (monastic liturgy) over proclamation/intercession (cathedral liturgy).  (Bradshaw, 73.) 

So it is that Gibbons, following this lead, wrote works expressive of the Anglican ideal regardless of the stylistic period (Temperley) and that illustrate “splendid declamatory phrasing coupled with true verbal accentuation.”  (Fellowes, 103.)  “This is the Record of John” is an excellent example.  It is a verse anthem, which means sections of the text are given to one or more soloists, usually accompanied by an instrument or instruments, and the other sections are given to the full chorus. The solo part is restrained. It is, to use the language of Elizabeth I’s 1559 Injunction, “as if it were read.” (Quoted in Temperley.)  Moreover, when the choir has its moments of polyphony, they are modest. Even if one could claim that this moderate polyphony obscures the text, it is the same text that has already been declaimed clearly by the soloist.  All of this is achieved while not detracting from the fact that Gibbons’s liturgical music is—as its continued presence in the repertoire attests—music enjoyably satisfying to hear and listen to.


Bradshaw, Paul F.  “Daily Prayer.”  In The Identity of Anglican Worship, ed., Kenneth Stevenson and Bryan Spinks.  Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 1991.

Church of England.  Preface to The Booke of the Common Prayer … of the Churche of England.  Accessed 5 June 2022,

Fellowes, Edmund.  William Byrd.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948.

Long, Kenneth.  The Music of the English Church.  London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991.

Pauley, John-Bede.  “The Anglican Choral Heritage and Lectio Divina.”  Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal 19:2 (2015): 173-215.

Temperley, Nicholas.  “Anglican and Episcopalian Church Music.”  In Grove Music Online.  Accessed 5 June 2022,

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