Music Orlando Gibbons
Richard Turbet
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0172


Orlando Gibbons was born into a musical family in Cambridge, and was baptized on Christmas Day, 25 December 1583. His father, William, was a professional musician, head of the waits, or city band, in Cambridge and subsequently Oxford. Orlando was the youngest of four sons. Of his older brothers, the eldest, Edward, was a church musician and composer; Ellis was the only composer besides the editor, Thomas Morley, to contribute two madrigals rather than just one to The Triumphs of Oriana; and Ferdinando succeeded their father as head of the Cambridge waits. Orlando’s son, Christopher, was a reputable composer whose music is still performed, and has been commercially recorded. Orlando remains the best-known member of the dynasty. He was hailed as the most accomplished keyboard player of his time, and his compositions in the genres of keyboard music, consort music, Anglican church music, and the madrigal are all performed, commercially recorded, discussed, and celebrated to this day. Although his music can be heard and seen as some of the last that is audibly and identifiably of the Renaissance, his work is often cited as being a harbinger of the Baroque. Given that he was only forty-one when he died, his surviving oeuvre is not vast, but it has provoked a few controversies: these issues concern the scoring of his fantasias in three parts; the definition of the “great dooble base,” which some of his works for consort require; whether all, some, or any of his madrigals were originally accompanied solo songs; and the provenance of his verse anthems, the scoring of their accompaniments, and contemporary performance practice. Beyond any dispute is the quality of Gibbons’s music. It is not known who taught him. Possibly it was his father or an older brother. It has also been stated that he was a pupil of William Byrd (b. 1539/40–d. 1623). Although no surviving evidence supports this supposition, it is worth noting that he was the youngest of the three composers who contributed to the prestigious keyboard publication Parthenia (1612–1613) alongside Byrd and John Bull (b. 1562/3–d. 1628). Given that Bull is known to have been a pupil of Byrd, it is therefore not impossible that Gibbons also was taught by the greatest of English composers. Gibbons’s own reputation remains secure as one of the finest of his day and one of the best produced by England, a younger contemporary and equal of other musical eminences such as John Dowland (b. 1563–d. 1626), Thomas Tomkins (b. 1572–d. 1656), Thomas Weelkes (b. 1576–d. 1623), and John Wilbye (b. 1574–d. 1628), and a gifted predecessor of John Jenkins (b. 1592–d. 1678) and William Lawes (b. 1602–d. 1645), and subsequently Henry Purcell (b. 1659–d. 1695). Despite all that has been said in this introduction, however, it has to be emphasized that disappointingly little has been written about Gibbons in relation to his acknowledged status, and in this bibliography the attempt has been made to quarry those writings devoted to Gibbons that contain even single worthwhile insights, which are of course duly indicated in the annotations. Gibbons died at Canterbury in distressing circumstances during an outbreak of the plague in 1625, but upon careful medical examination his body was “found to be very cleene.” (see “Orlando Gibbons’s Death” in Harley 1999 [pp. 224–230, especially pp. 227–228]).


Only two books have been written about Gibbons, apart from Ellis and Pilgrim 1984, a pamphlet that is cited under Anthems. The earlier of the two monographs, Fellowes 1970, is of mainly historical value. Besides being the first and, for many decades, only book about the composer, it is also the final book to have been written by Edmund H. Fellowes, one of the greatest among the pioneers in the revival of Tudor music during the first half of the 20th century. His writings are always worth consideration but need to be read with an eye to the state of knowledge and the opinions prevalent at the time. The biographical chapters in Harley 1999 provide the fullest and most reliable information about Gibbons’s life. Reviewers expressed reservations about the quality of the chapters about the music itself, and these chapters should be read in conjunction with other more specialized writings on specific genres within Gibbons’s oeuvre.

  • Fellowes, Edmund H. Orlando Gibbons and His Family: The Last of the Tudor School of Musicians. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1970.

    The first and, for several decades, only monograph about Gibbons. Best read as an historical document within the context of Gibbons’s reception. The biographical material is sound enough but has been expanded in Harley 1999, while for an authoritative survey of the music as a whole, see Harper in Grove Music Online, accessed 5 December 2014 (cited under Life and Works). First published by Oxford University Press in 1951.

  • Harley, John. Orlando Gibbons and the Gibbons Family of Musicians. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

    This is the only monograph of full length about Gibbons. For biographical material it is outstanding. The chapters about the music are worthy but dispassionate, and the author seems to assume a similar disengagement on the part of Gibbons with the music that he composed.

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