The 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible (1611)

Music by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) with readings from the King James Bible

A Running Fantazia ~ Reading: Isaiah 40.1-5 ~ A Fancy in C fa ut ~  Reading: Micah 4.1-5 ~ In Nomine ~ Reading: Micah 6.6-8 ~ Plainsong fantasy ~ Prelude ~ Reading: John 1.1-14 ~ A Fancy for a double Orgaine

Queen Elizabeth I of England died “without issue” on May 24th, 1603. Notwithstanding the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots (which led to the latter’s execution in 1587) it was Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, who ascended the English throne as James I of England thereby uniting the two realms which had been at each other’s throats for some centuries. James was a man of some scholarship and, in 1604, appointed a committee to undertake a new English translation of the Bible. Translating from one language to another is never a completely straightforward task, and it presents even greater challenges when languages function in different ways. Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek are quite different from English; even individual words have shades of meaning which are difficult to render into English. There was a concern that the new translation should reflect the ecclesiology and structure of the Church of England, and we have to understand that translations can be slanted to reflect the ideas and agenda of the translators. Some forty-seven scholars were assembled who worked in three committees, one at Oxford, one at Cambridge, and a third at Westminster.

For the purpose of this programme I looked for organ music by composers specifically associated with those three places but found that, while Oxford and Cambridge certainly had organists at the time, little to no music by them is extant or available in performing editions. However, Orlando Gibbons, one of the most prominent and prolific composers of the period, has the distinction of being associated with each of those three places. He was born in Oxford and baptised there on Christmas Day, 1583. As a boy he sang in the choir at King’s College, Cambridge where his older brother Edward was either a lay clerk or Master of the Choristers. He graduated Mus.B. from Cambridge in 1606, and Mus.Doc. from Oxford in 1622. Apart from these connections with the two universities, he put down strong roots in London becoming Organist of the Chapel Royal in 1605 as well as of Westminster Abbey in 1623. He was a prolific composer and a notable keyboard performer. Some of the pieces on today’s programme may have originally been intended for the Virginals. However, they work perfectly well on the organ and, indeed, the nomenclature for keyboard instruments in the Renaissance and Baroque periods was somewhat looser than that to which we are accustomed. Thus, some of the pieces in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book seem peculiarly and primarily suited to the organ as do some of the Preludes and Fugues in Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” where emphasis is on the word “clavier” and which simply refers to a “keyboard” instrument.

If the terminology associated with instruments in the 16th and 17th centuries was loose so too was that associated with musical style and structure. Thus the term “fantasia” is often replaced by “fancy”. Many pieces bearing this title were fugal in structure while others, like the “Running Fantazia” in today’s programme were characterised by brilliant passage work. Sometimes these elements were blended in an episodic approach.

The term “C fa ut” is little more than in indicator as to the note on the staff with which the piece begins, in this case C below middle C. Most people are at least slightly familiar with tonic sol-fa (Doh, Ray, Me, etc.) which is a method whereby people can be enabled to sing music at sight. The prototype of this system evolved in the singing schools and among the musical theorists of the Middle Ages, and the names of the degrees of the scale in those early systems began not with “Doh” but with “Ut”. It sounds strange but the syllables were taken from the words of a Plainsong hymn melody which traced the actual notes. In France to this day the names of the notes are not the letter names which we use but the names from solfège. Thus “C major” is “Ut majeur”.

An “In Nomine” is a piece based on a “cantus firmus”: dfdddcfgfa…Contrary to some opinion this melody does not come from the introit “In nomine Jesu” but from the antiphon “Gloria tibi Trinitas”. Alone among the vast repertoire of keyboard and viol music based on this fragment, that by John Bull in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is correctly labelled “Gloria tibi Trinitas”. The “cantus firmus” is presented in very long notes around which the other voices carry on their conversation. The listener may not be all that aware of this musical skeleton and the compositional skill lies in how well yet another musical edifice can be built upon the same foundation. In this programme the “Plainsong Fantasy” has a similar approach to that of the “In Nomine”.

English organs in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were quite small and limited in comparison to their Continental cousins. There was no Pedal Organ and sometimes only one manual. On the other hand the manual choruses were usually well developed and of a very sweet tone. The term “Double Orgaine” therefore has considerable significance because it shows that Gibbons had in mind a fairly generous instrument of at least two manuals, each controlling sections of the organ with ample tonal resources and offering the important element of contrast.