Discovering Gibbs – Robert Atchison, writing in 2005
“I am the violinist in the London Piano Trio. I moved out to Essex just over a year ago from London, and am enjoying Essex life very much. As I am new to the county I looked on the internet for Essex composers and found the Gibbs website. Incidentally I had never heard of Gibbs prior to this. After contacting various people in your society I was able to get photocopies of two of Gibb’s trios, the Yorkshire Dales and the Trio in D from the Britten Pears library in Aldeburgh. Over the years, we have been approached by many people concerning music that has been neglected, and I have to say that for the most part this is due to the poor quality of most of these compositions. I remember well the morning that I got my copies of the scores in Gibb’s own hand, and sat down with a pot of coffee and was amazed at this man’s wonderful work. This was a true musical discovery for us, revealing works of great depth, originality, passion and appeal to the ear, and as a result we intend to record all four piano trios written by Gibbs, which are: The trio in D, The Yorkshire Dales, The Three Graces, and Country Magic. We have also programmed the trio in D for forthcoming tours of Canada, America, and the Far East.”
Gibbs and de la Mare – Creative Explorations – David Rust
I never knew my grandfather well. I was born in 1953, and we did not often see our grandparents (we knew them as Dan and Danpy) as between 1956 and 1959 as we were in Australia, and Armstrong died in 1960, soon after we returned. But I have always loved listening to his music, especially his songs. My parents have often talked about Armstrong’s uncanny ability to capture the mood of a poem, and to express it in music. He was great friends for many years with Walter de la Mare. I enjoy de la Mare’s explorations into the world of dreams and the subconscious. Critics write of the resemblance that his poetry has to music (see, for example, ‘Stepping Out of the Gloaming: A Reconsideration of the Poetry of Walter de la Mare’ by Richard Hawking, University College, Worcester, 1999). De la Mare was fully aware of the way in which music, like the sense of smell, has an indescribable power to evoke and arouse a lost, perhaps forgotten reality. ‘His dominant impulse was the quest for another, richer self, and another, essential reality’ (Hawking). Many of his poems seek to reawaken childhood memories, which he regarded as a purer, higher reality.
Armstrong, too, was highly sensitive regarding his own childhood memories. In his unpublished autobiography, ‘Common Time’, he records some of his intense, often anguished experiences. Sometimes his music appears to be a quest, seeking to make sense of his deeply buried emotions. I find certain of his orchestral works a roller-coaster of emotion and spirit, such as Prelude, Andante and Finale (on the CD Dale and Fell released by Hyperion), in which Armstrong explores coming to terms with wartime trauma and the loss of his only son, my Uncle David, in Italy in 1943. How much my response is due to an inherited affinity, and how much to Armstrong’s universal ability to communicate emotion through his music I cannot tell.
I decided to see recently if I could connect in a more deliberate way with both poet and composer. I gathered together paper, coloured pens and pastels, and chose one of Armstrong’s songs, a setting of de la Mare’s The Bells on the CD English Song, released by Naxos. First I prayed that the Spirit of the Living God would open up my spirit and join with my creativity to express visually something of the heart of the words and music. I listened to the song a couple of times, and then just let my hands move freely across the paper, letting colour express mood, line express feeling. Then I played it over and over, maybe for ten times or more, and let the power of the song etch itself deeply into my consciousness, allowing forgotten memories to rise to the surface. I found myself building up a picture of the clanging bells, the ploughman with his team of horses, children playing under distant trees, and reverberating sound waves merging into long furrow lines and echoing out towards the night stars.
It was not by any means an accomplished piece of art, and yet I felt deeply satisfied, perhaps because, even in this small exercise I had employed a range of different senses and faculties. I had made connections between mind, emotion, will and spirit; between conscious memory, dreams and the subconscious; between words and music combined by art; between my past, my present and my future; between the tiny details of our routine existence and the infinite majesty of the universe. It had become a form of worship. I experienced a sense of wholeness and shalom. Armstrong’s interpretation of de la Mare’s words seemed to me to be just perfect. Somehow, too, he had helped me to go beyond the role of just passive listener, rushing from one emotion to another as we so often do in our media-frenzied modern lives, without giving time to digest and reflect. He had helped me to become an active participator in the creative process, exploring my own feelings in a ‘Quest for another, richer self, and another, essential reality’. Thank you, Danpy.
Notes on my first reactions – Lorna Burroughs
1.Peacock Pie – A suite for String Orchestra and Piano 1 The Huntsmen Evocative as a Stubbs painting, these huntsmen immediately attract attention with their fun-loving trotting horses eagerly returning home. 2 The Sunken Garden. This drifting, nebulous melody (in 6ths?) evoked, for me, a typically English summer with streaky grey/white clouds wafting over the somewhat mysterious depths below. 3 The Ride-By-Nights I don’t agree with the programme notes in the accompanying booklet (which I read after listening to the music) for this third piece; I certainly heard sinister undercurrents, not exactly vicious, but sufficiently malevolent for me to feel relieved when I heard the lively finish with the bells chiming that told me “All’s well”.
2.Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra. The first movement is pure romanticism, first with an almost Rachmaninoff intensity, then typically English understated romances interspersed with quirky English witticisms; no other nationality could have composed these! The second movement is ‘simply’ warm-hearted, brooding, passionate, whilst the last movement perfectly depicts an English country festival gone wild! The above notes are my reactions on hearing – to paraphrase Delius – ‘The First Peacock in Summer’. Perhaps I can finish with a quote from another Englishman – Edward Elgar. ‘My idea is that there is music in the air; the world is full of it, you simply take as much as you require’.
The Turning Year – Christopher Kingsley
2008 marks the 50th anniversary of Gibbs’ delightful composition The Turning Year. This cantata for mixed Tchorus and piano, or piano with strings is: ‘Dedicated to the Secondary Schools of the City of Carlisle on the occasion of their Octocentenary Celebrations 1958’. The words are by Benedict Ellis who first met Gibbs in the early 1950s. They became good friends, working together on several sacred and secular works.
Taking the four seasons as a basis for an extended work is a tried and tested formula and the precedent set by composers such as Vivaldi and Haydn is taken forward in The Turning Year. In High Summer we hear a review of the sights, sounds and scents that tempt our senses during the summer season. The music is tuneful, straightforward and relaxed, reflecting ‘a season needing neither time nor space.’ The second movement, In Autumn is in four sections. The first and last, discussing the more sedate pleasures of autumn, frame two vigorous sections in compound time describing what may happen ‘when the wind is wild’. The title of the third movement, Fell Winter, probably draws on Gibbs’ experiences while living in Windermere during the Second World War. This movement is the shortest and lightest in the texture of the whole work. Moving at a slow pace as befits winter, each of the four voice parts enter individually to describe aspects of winter that might be experienced on the Lakeland fells. The movement concludes with a reference to Christmas in ‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen’. Spring Song is an exuberant paean to the spring. Once again we reflect on the many pleasures of that season that ‘we would not change for gold’. In this movement there are four sections in the form of a rondo. The first episode is set in the major key a minor third below the tonic. Here the sopranos and altos make contributions individually and then in duet. This is balanced by the second episode when the tenors and basses enter with a similar form but in the major key a third above the tonic. The music of the first middle and last sections is the same, the latter bringing the work to a triumphal conclusion with ‘Who sees our English Spring revealed shall give his thanks for gold’.
Throughout the work the highly descriptive nature of the poetry is well matched by the texture and harmony of the music, resulting in a splendid cantata which is a joy to sing and a pleasure to listen to. It is likely that the first performance in Essex was given by the Danbury Choral Society on 27th October 1958 with the composer conducting and Phyllis Wright accompanying.
First performance of the Ballade in D flat – Lorna Burroughs
At the December meeting of the Great Baddow & Galleywood U3A, Armstrong Gibbs’ Ballade in D flat for solo piano received its 1st public performance, given by Lorna Burroughs, who said that, having played in Gibbs’ last concert in 1960 shortly before he died, she was especially interested to hear that a hitherto unknown manuscript had been received by the A G society, of which she is a member. A computerised copy of the Ballade was made by Michael Pilkington and given to Lorna. Before playing she asked the audience for comments on the music which she would then pass on, via the Society, to Gibbs’ surviving daughter, Mrs Ann Rust, & his grandchildren. The audience were clearly very pleased with the music, even the middle section which to Lorna had seemed controversial, was seen as part of the whole; the left hand, marked Pesante & Accented, providing a contrast to the right hand which, based on the flowing opening theme, gave continuity to the whole. Thank You to Armstrong Gibbs ‐‐‐ Are there any more manuscripts lying undiscovered?
The 2008 Gibbs Festival – Laurette Guest
“Shouldn’t it be called The Gibbs Music Festival?” considered one trustee at the planning stage. “Not many people will know anything about him or even that he was a local musician”. After the variety of events over the weekend of the 12th-14th September, however, there would be no doubt of his identity in the locals’ minds.
For several weeks beforehand, Gibbs’ eyes followed one around from the life sized busts on the posters around the village. During the weekend 87 people shared a tea and a supper in his name; 21 people walked a trail of his homes and haunts to the sound of a peal of church bells on the sunny Saturday morning and a total of over 300 people attended five musical events, all described in an eighteenpage programme painstakingly put together by the festival chairman, Christopher Kingsley, and faithfully reproduced ready for printing by Liz Blyth. In the church there was a display of Gibbs’ life and work, which was studied during concert intervals, and people were able to visit the slate memorial plaque in the chancel and his grave.
The Armstrong Gibbs Society was lucky to have as its Artistic Director a local resident and professional musician, Robert Atchison, violinist of the London Piano Trio, who have for several years enthusiastically championed and recorded Gibbs’ music. His contacts, along with those of our Chairman and local Councillor, Christopher Kingsley, ensured the Lottery and M and G funding which was needed to underpin the events financially.
The weekend started with a lunchtime piano and flute recital in the Parish Church of St John Baptist. It included a sensitive and able rendering of the Lakeland Pictures and Suite in A for flute and piano, by local musicians Lara Griffin and Kay Gibson. This, along with the well supported festival lunch which followed, was a heartening launch to the weekend.
The programme on Friday evening was A Celebration of English Song. First, Michael Pilkington, a Society trustee and musicologist, lent us his great experience of English song and its interpretation, by conducting a master class with three music students from the Colchester Institute on three of Gibbs’ songs: “Silver,” Philomel” and “Five Eyes”, contrasted with songs by Purcell, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Michael Head. It was a gritty activity, but much appreciated by both the audience and the participants. Then, after an interval, a group of three English National Opera singers by the name of “Bella Donna” gave us an entertaining, humorous and polished recital of composers ranging from the C16th to the C20th.
Saturday’s Festival concert in the church was performed by the London Piano Trio and friends, Paul Hagger the organist of St John Baptist Church, and the Lingwood Consort. It included a Concerto for Strings by Vivaldi, with continuo and strings sensitively integrated, and his ever popular “Gloria”; a Handel Organ Concerto and Gibbs’ Cantata “The Turning Year”. The singers all agreed that this their third performance of “The Turning Year” was by far the most exciting, as they were accompanied for the first time by strings as well as the piano part, and it must be said that Olga Dudnik’s pianistic skill added immeasurably to the excitement. The London Piano Trio came into their own on the Sunday afternoon with a spirited and sparkling rendering of the Mendelssohn Trio in D minor Op 49, and Gibbs’ pastoral “Country Magic” Op 47, and Trio in D Major Op 99, two of the four trios recently recorded by the LPT, to much acclaim. The weekend was rounded off by a Choral Evensong with Gibbs’ organ compositions for ingoing and outgoing voluntaries, his hymn tune ‘Lingwood’ and his evening canticles, sung by an augmented Parish Choir. The Rector in his sermon reflected that, like many of his contemporaries who were adjusting to a new social order after the horrors of two world wars, Gibbs’ compositions reflected both the realism of the dark forces of nature, (his son David was killed in action in Italy in 1943), and the restorative sanctuary of the English countryside. He spent the war years in Windermere after Crossings, his Danbury home, had been requisitioned as a military hospital. On his return to Danbury he was able to seek the refreshment of an out of doors spirituality and become once again “the creative artist who wants to celebrate and reflect upon the steadfast qualities which characterize English life, …alive to the nuances of mood and season in both his human and natural environment.” In addition, however, Gibbs was unusual amongst his contemporaries such as RVW, Arnold Bax, Peter Warlock or Gerald Finzi, in being known to have a living Christian faith.
After evensong, musicians and audience were able to join in a sit-down supper catered for by Alan’s Kitchen, when the events of the weekend were mulled over. The general consensus was that it was all well worth the sustained effort by so many contributors, and gratifyingly well- supported. We were especially pleased to welcome our President Ann Rust, and her husband Lyndon and two of their daughters, who came up from Berkshire for the weekend. It could be viewed as a useful rehearsal for the next Festival we plan in 2010, to mark the 50th anniversary of Gibbs’ death.
Recording The Betrothal – Lewis Foreman:
“Dan Godfrey was the celebrated conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra from 1895 to his retirement in 1934. There he established a tradition of performing all the latest British music (and quite a few foreign ones too). He was knighted for it! The Gibbs works he programmed were: Ballet Music from The Betrothal (30/3/1922); Song: The Fields are Full (4/1922): Suite: Crossings (3/4/1924): A Vision of Night (8/3/1923) and Symphony in E (25/10/1933). The idea (suggested by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) was to do a programme of Dan Godfrey ‘Encores’ – really revivals – to include mainly unrecorded examples of the shorter works he played including a group of the light music pieces such as Gee Whizz! and Clatter of the Clogs. I wanted to have Armstrong Gibbs represented, and after looking at A Vision of Night, Crossings and The Betrothal decided to recommend the latter.”
Lewis Foreman photocopied the autograph full score which is held at The Royal College of Music. This was passed to Michael Pilkington who used his amazing skills with IT to produce ‘electronic’ versions of the full score and parts. From these, members of the committee reproduced and prepared performing copies for the orchestra. The recording was made on 22nd July by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at The Lighthouse in Poole and was conducted by Ronald Corp. When the orchestra launched into the waltz section he is reported as saying, “It’s where Dusk came from”. The Betrothal was written by Maurice Maeterlinck and is described as A Fairy Play. It was produced 90 years ago by Granville Barker at The Gaiety Theatre in London for which Gibbs wrote the incidental music. The footnote to the autograph is: 2/6/21. C.A.G. Wildcroft, Danbury.
Gibbs as an Adjudicator – An Interview with the composer Richard Stoker
John France from MusicWeb Internationalspoke to the composer Richard Stoker about his early meeting with Armstrong Gibbs over 50 years ago. He also gives his thoughts on Gibbs and his music, the plight of British composers in the 20th century, and some oral history on the social and musical scene in Pontefract in the late 1940s.
Richard Stoker, your first and only meeting with Cecil Armstrong Gibbs was in the West Riding market town of Pontefract. You were about 9 years old and a budding musician.
As far as I remember, and it is about 55 years ago now, Armstrong Gibbs was the Adjudicator at the Pontefract Competitive Music Festival, circa 1948. He seems to have been a familiar figure when he was visiting the North as an adjudicator, or so I was told at the time and frequently since. The adjudication took place at either the old Assembly Rooms or as part of the music festival in the ancient Town Hall.
I arrived with my father and mother at our favourite restaurant and tearooms called Wordsworths.We ordered coffee and biscuits from the waitress, smartly dressed with a spotless white napkin over her arm, when a distinguished older man sat down at the next table. He looked very shy but at the same time kind and extremely confident; he stooped a lot, what they then called a professorial stoop. After placing his leather briefcase at his feet he nodded to us, but said nothing.Our neighbour ordered a large cooked breakfast: it looked like a mixed grill, plus toast and coffee. I think he may have started with a large half of grapefruit. When the girl returned with the piping hot meal our neighbour was already readingThe Times, with adverts all over the front page. I thought he would be up for the races as he was dressed in a thick check green tweed suit, with a cream-coloured handkerchief floating out of his top pocket; both tie and hanky were pure silk, I noticed. He would take out the handkerchief and wipe his nose, then put it back. I was very nervous about the coming ordeal at the festival. I remember my father saying the usual thing that you can only do your best and he expected nothing more — or so he said. Our neighbour lingered over his breakfast and newspaper as if on holiday and with all the time in the world. He kept leaning back in his wooden Windsor armchair to turn the huge pages of his newspaper, snorting and sniffing a bit. My father hadn’t even noticed him, but like me my mother had. She asked my father who he thought the stranger might be. My father answered her: ‘How should I know, someone up from the South … London no doubt.’ Next time the waitress appeared to clear our cups, saucers and plates my mother whispered to her: ‘Who’s that man?’ nodding at the next table. ‘Oh, he’s the Music Festival adjudicator. He always stays here.’ (There were bedrooms for hire above, which always seemed intriguing to me.) Now I felt even more nervous than before. ‘He’ll be adjudicating your class, Richard.’ I remember her saying that he looked a nice, very friendly man and told me not to worry.
I know that you were interested in cricket as well as music: did you know that Gibbs played the game until he became too infirm? He then turned to bowls.
That really does sound familiar from the distant past. He was a countryman, and cricket and bowls are both played in the heart of the country, often near a country pub. It’s very believable really. Do any titles of his pieces reflect these interests? It’s surprising how many 20th century composers have played squash and tennis. Squash is often popular because you can be back at your desk in under an hour and it’s useful to have the shower! It is funny you mentioned cricket because I often drew cricketing symbols on my piano scores to remind me of things to do: bails, bats, balls, pads, stumps etc. Armstrong Gibbs, looking over my shoulder, asked why these were there and he must have been interested in the cricketing symbols, being a cricketer himself.
As I said earlier, CAG was adjudicating a music festival – this implies that there was a vigorous local musical interest. Can you tell me something of this?
The real local musical interest came from the collieries – brass bands, even bell ringing, the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society in nearby Castleford, called The Old Legioleans after the Roman name for the town.The bridge at Castleford had been the only way across the River Aire to the North and Scotland at one time, the old Roman Road that came from Finchley Road, up Watling Street, through St Albans, Knottingley through Castleford then on up to Edinburgh. Castleford and Pontefract are exactly midway between the two great cities, London and Edinburgh. So the music scene wasn’t all centred at the Town Hall and Assembly Rooms but in the parks, schools, night schools, choir stalls etc. There’s even a Folk and Dance society now, with Morris dancing performed in the open air in the Castle grounds. As far as the music was concerned the standards varied greatly. But it is a fact that the Examiners were most impressed by the industrial places in Britain, the entrants worked harder and took the whole thing more seriously. Often the best results and standards come from the industrial places, there is perhaps a higher concentration on the artistic side of life as a compensatory factor to the often drab environment. So Armstrong Gibbs could enjoy both sides of his life and it was perhaps a satisfaction to him and an inspiration for his creative work.
Did CAG play the piano at the Festival? If so, can you recall anything about his playing?
Yes, he demonstrated parts of pieces to each of us and in the open class performed a movement of a Sonata to an elderly man who looked bored and uncomfortable, as if he thought he knew best. On the other hand Armstrong Gibbs’ playing was extremely musical, with great feeling. He sat at the grand piano very relaxed, with straight back and slightly sideways. I noticed ten years later that this was how the song composer Michael Head (who had become my friend by then) and was eleven years younger than Gibbs, would sit when playing, often providing his own silk cushion for comfort. Both of them frequently looked round at the audience and at the performers.
How did CAG strike you – was he a severe-looking gentleman – bearing in mind he was nearly sixty at the time?
Not severe at all: he was relaxed, kindly and smiling. You could tell how experienced he was as an examiner and adjudicator. He used terms such as ‘my boy’ quite often. He was never fussy but in complete control. His humour came from the musical situation, and was never forced or artificial. He was not in any way a showman like later adjudicators were. Armstrong Gibbs knew why he was there, taking the musical and educational side very seriously indeed. He was a professional to his fingertips. The viola player Bernard Shore reminded me of him in many ways, easy to talk to, never brusque, ready to advise the younger person when asked. Before we leave the subject of the Festival, it’s interesting to note that this year, 2003, is the Pontefract and District Music Festival’s centenary year.
Gibbs’ biographer Angela Aries has said that he was a countryman at heart and did not really take to the pizzazz of city life. All the paraphernalia of the rural life appealed to him. Is this how he struck you?
That’s absolutely true: he looked out of place examining. That’s why I thought he was up for the races or golf or even hunting. He was like a country squire. When anyone called me squire later on, such as a bank manager, I always thought of him.
Did CAG speak to you at this time or make any comments on your musicianship?
Yes, he was very encouraging. I remember if it was a young candidate playing, he would sometimes leave the high central podium and come over, climb the stage and when you neared the end he would be ready to say something encouraging or demonstrate something on the keyboard. (It seemed to me he may have preferred the teacher-pupil relationship best, he was after all a professor at the Royal College). This seemed a new departure from the usual approach. He commended the way a phrase had been played; his criticism was totally without sarcasm, and never severe. One could tell he was an inspired teacher.
Can you recall how he spoke to the other candidates?
He had a different approach to each candidate, according to age and ability. He seemed to like the younger ones best. In the open classes he spoke to the older candidates more critically, avoiding any argument very cleverly. He would go up on stage to accompany singers and instrumentalists if the accompanist was late or away. He spent little time writing reports and was on stage very quickly. I remember he announced with mark sheets flapping in his hand rather formally, ‘I will now make my assessments of the candidates’. He spoke slowly and clearly without a regional accent, very much like Sir David Willcocks’ diction. There was not a trace of excitement in his voice, just matter-of-factness and professionalism. The Yorkshire audience loves this. No histrionics or razzmatazz here.
After the war he reformed the Danbury Choral Society and renewed his associations with the Festivals Movements. Around the time he visited Pontefract he was heavily involved in preparation of music for the Mother’s Union Worldwide Conference of 1948 and planning his input to the Festival of Britain celebrations. Do you remember any of this being mentioned?
I am certain he referred to the Festival of Britain: it was the first I had heard of it and it was quite exciting, something to look out for and perhaps visit. The Mother’s Unions were especially strong then,I remember my mother and aunt going to these events and even one my mother went to, to hear” Odette” speak. My mother was quite excited about that meeting and talked of it for weeks. I think we read about the Danbury Choral Society in the Daily Mail, here we also read about the conference. He kept a good rapport with the audience, not so much by telling stories but by explaining the music. I seem to remember him encouraging applause after a good performance.
Why do you think he was invited to Pontefract?
It was the most important Festival after the Mrs Sunderland Festival at Huddersfield which I later adjudicated. So he would visit Pontefract regularly, both as an adjudicator and as an examiner. The musicologist Professor Denis Stevens CBE recently told me that Gibbs visited his own school – The Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Bucks in 1938. Armstrong Gibbs came to examine the boys in music; he was remembered as a cheerful, outgoing, friendly man who was extremely musical and an inspiration to them all. So Denis Stevens and I have this fact in common; Armstrong Gibbs encouraged us both in our formative years, although there is sixteen years’ difference in our ages.Armstrong Gibbs was very popular at Pontefract because of his experience and age, also the fact that he was a composer made it something special. The hard-headed Yorkshire men and women always wanted the best. It was quality first, then personality, and finally, as the young and gifted were involved, kindliness.
Until recently, my only knowledge of Armstrong Gibbs’ music was of a few of his solo songs and a couple of organ works.
Actually Gibbs was very much a ‘people’s’ composer, producing much ‘utility music’ for amateurs. This fits in well with his dedication to the Festival movement, doesn’t it?
I knew the songs and piano works, also some choral works. Like myself he seemed to prefer a cappella writing, often SATB too. Works that I remember are: ‘While the Shepherds Were Watching’, a carol with words by Benedict Ellis, SATB (1955), ‘Now Israel May Say, and That Truly’, SATB (c1937), ‘The Gift’, a choral mime, for narrator, women’s chorus, miming troupe, strings and piano, words by Benedict Ellis, and the beautiful ‘Anthem for Easter – Most Glorious Lord of Lyfe’, words by Edmund Spenser (c1932). Songs include: ‘The Ballad of Semmerwater’ (Curwen-Elkin), ‘Gipsies’ (OUP), ‘Five Eyes’, ‘A Song of Shadows’, ‘The Fields are Full’ (all three Boosey & Hawkes), ‘Lyonesse’ (Elkin), ‘The Witch’, ‘The Splendour Falls’, ‘Fulfilment’, ‘The Oxen’, ‘Titania’, ‘Tom o’Bedlam’, ‘The Wanderer’, ‘Hypochondriacus’, ‘Philomel’, ‘The Lamb and the Dove’ (all Thames/Elkin). There is incidental music toThe Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus composed for Cambridge in 1921, and music for Maeterlinck’s The BetrothaI (see the humorous article ‘Alarms and excursions’, by Armstrong Gibbs on this work’s gestation, which appeared inComposer magazine No 16, July 1965, reprinted from theComposers’ Guild BulletinNo 18, March 1957). I have also heard on Radio 1 or 2 two finely crafted and tuneful chamber music works. In this way he resembles another highly inspired, tuneful and undervalued composer, Gordon Jacob.
I know that CAG wrote a number of works for the stage – both operas and incidental music. In fact, to a certain extent this is how he made his name. He wrote the music for Crossings, a children’s play written especially for Gibbs by Walter de la Mare. Also did you ever come across some of his comic operas – one of them was to a libretto by A.P.Herbert, The Blue Peter,and perhaps the harlequinade Midsummer Madness, by Clifford Bax. In fact this last work had 115 performances before it closed.
I seem to remember some of his music being broadcast on the enterprising Home Service – Childrens’ Hour. David Davis, himself a fine pianist, featured much inspired music, usually as signature tune music.
He wrote a ‘television’ opera, Mr Cornelius, in 1952/3 for performance on the BBC. However it was rejected. This hurt the composer deeply and I believe he did not turn his hand to the medium again. Did this fit in with the BBC’s policy to ignore ‘conservative’ composers at this time?
I am sure it was about this time, following the Festival of Britain year, that things changed, melody was discouraged and communication was no longer a priority at the BBC. The competition between works is very great. What a pity his opera wasn’t broadcast on television: it would have been one of the very first new British operas screened. I seem to remember an Arthur Benjamin opera was the first commissioned for television. Both composers died the same year – 1960.
Armstrong Gibbs went to the Lake District during the war, due to his house being requisitioned for the war effort. After the death of his son in Italy he wrote his Westmoreland Symphony, no. 3, which to my mind is one of his finest works. Have you come across it?
Yes, I heard it broadcast about five years ago now. I was very impressed by its English pastoral quality and its length and substantiality: no mean feat to write so expansively. It reminded me in some respects of another work of a similar nature, Alan Bush’s Nottingham Symphony, but the Gibbs is more laid back. Perhaps it’s the countryman writing alongside the city man. I think the broadcast I heard was from a CD recording on the Marco Polo label, recorded by the National Orchestra of Ireland conducted by Andrew Penny.
However, one of his best known works is in the genre of so-called ‘light’ music. There was a time when every orchestra at the pier end or on the promenade must have been playing Armstrong Gibbs’ Dusk.I have a piano copy of this work and often enjoy its quiet sentimentality. However I think it is sad that many people will know the ‘tune’ but not the composer.
Yes, I heard it at many resorts such as Lytham St Anne’s, Filey, Scarborough, Bridlington, St Ives and Helston. You are right about the light music, this could have added to the neglect of Armstrong Gibbs in recent years. He was a versatile composer, but it’s easy to get pigeon-holed in the arts, as elsewhere.
Many critics regard Gibbs’ Choral Symphony Odysseusas being his masterpiece. It was written during the war, but had to wait until 1946 for its first performance. Did you ever hear it, or perhaps hear tell of it?
I’ve certainly been told how fine it is, but can’t remember hearing it.
Why do you think that he has been largely ignored as a composer over the years? My own view is that he was a somewhat conservative composer who was somehow running against the spirit of the times.
You are quite right. There is another reason to my mind that it is not one person or one institution to blame for the neglect of composers, but I suspect it goes back a very long way, neither is it fashion – as the latter changes from day to day. No, what composers have suffered over the last 150 years is nothing to do with the above. I would trace it back to Edward Hanslick or even further back to the Schubert period. Look how the composers Delius and Schubert were treated after their deaths. I could name at least two composers who died of AIDS and are neglected now: is this due to a taboo? The history of music is populated with composers who have suffered neglect due to reasons other than their music, which is a shame. Their name and its associations can also play a part. Parry and Stanford are the saddest examples of all, together with George Dyson. Near the end of the 19th century someone noticed a superficial resemblance to Brahms in Stanford’s music, and the die was cast. The saddest time was when our own composers were castigated for liking to write melody. The Gibbs generation suffered much from this: John Ireland, Frank Bridge E.J. Moeran, Percy Turnbull, Arthur Somervell, Michael Head, Roger Quilter, Gustav Holst, and Arnold Bax suffered most, with Gibbs, Gordon Jacob, Herbert Howells, Arthur Benjamin, Cyril Scott, and William Lloyd Webber, then later in the last century Gerald Finzi, Alan and Geoffrey Bush, Arnold Cooke, Bernard Stevens, and the film composers Bill Alwyn, Ben Frankel, Malcolm Arnold, Humphrey Searle (a challenging composer if ever there was one) and Wilfred Josephs, at that time all lacking broadcasts because of being successful film composers. The overseas figures too: Paul Hindemith, Honegger, Korngold and Zemlinsky, all suffered neglect for different reasons. In our own time such inspired composers as William Mathias, Tom Eastwood, David Gow, John Joubert, Alun Hoddinot, Kenneth Leighton, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Elizabeth Maconchy, Anthony Milner and one of the finest, Peter Racine Fricker, spring to mind. Composing simple and utility music was not popular from a concert composer at that time. So Armstrong Gibbs was not a single case, although I have noticed that he does not feature in many reference books.