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Orlando Gibbons, seen here watching a plague-ridden rat crawl across his piano bench while the portrait artist is telling him to keep still. 

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Orlando Gibbons
(bapt. 25 December 1583 – 5 June 1625)

Anyone who remembers David Davis, Bel Canto's nomenclator and  director from 1978 to 1983, knows how much he loved Orlando Gibbons. And there is a lot to love. A brilliant Virginalist (a term not actually used during his own time) and known for his improvisational prowess, the young Orlando had the luck of history to work directly with William Byrd, arguably the greatest of all English Renaissance composers, whom he modeled himself on, and with whom he collaborated on Parthenia, the first printed book of music for virginals in England. Gibbons' text settings - a departure from the then-contemporary coloring of words one by one as they passed - convey the meaning of a phrase in lush strokes, and he reveled in the English language, never writing in Latin.

The Silver Swan

There is evidence that Gibbons himself wrote the words to this beautiful illustration of the "Swan Song" myth - that swans are silent until the moment before death - and its final line may even be a comment on the fading popularity of the English madrigal form: "More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise." This may or may not have been leveled at his more popular madrigalian contemporary Thomas Morley. Speculations aside, the piece shows just how deft Gibbons was at interweaving independent vocal lines under a cantus melody, creating truly emotional moments. Listen, for instance, in the line Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,  to a flattened sixth - a "false relation" to the G major chord - on the word "against." Subtle stuff, that, and something that speaks to both the trained and untrained ear. Cheers to David Davis, who left the world with much in him still left to do. 

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