Merry Christmas & Happy Birthday Orlando Gibbons


My Music Theory wishes you a very merry Christmas and a Happy 525th Birthday to Orlando Gibbons, born (or at least baptised) on 25th December 1583.

So who is Orlando Gibbons? Apart from having a pretty splendid name, Orlando Gibbons was a Renaissance English composer who is still popular today – well at least he’s still popular in music exams and amongst early music enthusiasts! He was born in Oxford and got his Bachelor’s degree in Music from Kings College, Cambridge University, then worked as an organist and composer until he died at the ripe old age of 41. That wasn’t a bad age in those days, I believe, and even today apparently Kings
College commemorates his death with an obituary service in his name.

Long live Orlando!
Orlando Gibbons’ most famous piece of music is his madrigal “The Silver Swan”. Madrigals were invented in Italy and the first madrigals with the words translated into English arrived in England in 1588. They were an instant hit and sparked off a great flurry of enthusiastic composing across the nation – they were the ‘pop’ music of their day. If you had been born in the 16th century your mum would probably have been shouting “stop that racket” at you and your mates singing, one person per part, in your back room of a Sunday evening.

Madrigals came in 3 flavours – Proper, Ballets and Ayres. A madrigal proper employed word painting – musical illustrations matching the meaning of the words in the text, and were extremely contrapuntal – meaning that the voices weave around each other rather than all following the same melodic line, and they also used a lot of imitation to develop musical ideas.

Ballets were lighter in style and often danced to as well as sung. Ballets are famous for having a fa-la-la refrain, meaning that they had a chorus which basically consisted of the words “fa-la-la”. Simple but catchy! Ayres were songs, and could be sung with perhaps a lute accompaniment. The music was printed in books with each part facing in a different direction, so that the players and singers could sit around a square table and see their part clearly.

Here are the words to Orlando Gibbons “Silver Swan” madrigal:

The silver Swan, who living had no note,
When death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
Thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

If you’re studying Grade Five Music Theory, you could try composing a melody to these words – try to use some word painting, imitation and think about the cadence points. Then compare it to the original:

If you want to listen to more, we recommend the following CD available from Amazon which includes the “Silver Swan”.


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