About this Recording
8.223553 - GIBBS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3

Armstrong Gibbs (1889–1960)
Symphony (No. 1) in E, Op. 70 (1931–32) • Symphony No. 3 in B flat, Op. 104 “Westmorland” (1944)


Armstrong Gibbs (he always hated his first given name, Cecil) was one of the most prolific of his generation of British composers, but since his death on 12 May 1960 has become one of the most neglected. His small surviving reputation is based on a mere handful from his nearly 200 songs (a selection are on Marco Polo 8.223458), but he also wrote operas, incidental music, a great many choral works ranging from small unaccompanied pieces, through a long series of secular and sacred cantatas with orchestra, to the hour-long choral Symphony “Odysseus”, instrumental and chamber music including at least a dozen string quartets, and orchestral music embracing symphonic poems, concertos, numerous light music suites, and the two full-scale symphonies recorded here for the first time.

He was born on 10 August 1889 in Great Baddow, Essex. The family was prosperous—his father was chairman of a thriving family business—but Armstrong’s mother died when he was two, and the boy was brought up in a rambling 17th century country mansion by five aunts who took it in turns to keep house for the widower. When still a tiny boy he evinced precocious musical gifts including an acute sense of perfect pitch—sitting under the grand piano out of sight of the keyboard he could name correctly all the notes of a chord, from the top down or the bottom up. These gifts did not get much stimulation at “The Wick”, the prep school near Brighton where he was sent at the age of 10, nor at Winchester, for which he gained a scholarship three years later. In his last year at the College, however, he formed with his friend Steuart Wilson a small choir which soon attained a high enough standard to give eagerly-attended monthly recitals.

Both went up to Cambridge, Gibbs to Trinity College where he read history and subsequently music, taking his B. Mus. in 1913. Enduring musical friendships were formed, notably with Vaughan Williams, and Edward Dent, who taught him composition, and through whom he also came into contact with Busoni. Gibbs had been writing music since his schooldays, but such manuscripts as he had submitted to publishers had been returned, and he lacked the means to sustain himself while forging a composing career. He was thus forced to seek employment when his university years came to an end—though saved, ironically, from martyrdom in the trenches (World War I was already underway) by his delicate health. He became a schoolmaster, from 1915 back at “The Wick”, and gradually he resigned himself to the classroom as the walls of his future. In 1919, however, a chance to switch to a full-time musical career came his way, and he took it. Gibbs was asked to organize a retirement celebration for the departing headmaster, and decided on a play with music, composed by himself. For the text he turned to Walter de la Mare, who he had never met but whose verse he admired intensely, having already set some to music. De la Mare agreed to write the play, and two months later a script called Crossings arrived (four of Gibbs’ song-settings from it are performed by Nik and Rosemary Hancock-Child on Marco Polo 8.223458).

Gibbs’ score was for flute, string quartet and piano, and as he wished to play the latter part himself, a conductor had to be found. Edward Dent had taken a lively interest in the project, and on the morning of the first rehearsal, ushered in a tall, thin young man. His name was Adrian Boult. The performance was highly successful, but the real import for Gibbs came immediately after. Boult was so impressed by the music that he not only urged Gibbs to make music his career, but with characteristic generosity offered to pay, from his own pocket, a year’s tuition fees for composition classes with Vaughan Williams and conducting from himself, at the Royal College of Music.

The financial risks were considerable, and Gibbs’ decision was not made easier by the fact that he now had a young family. However, with his wife’s encouragement, he took the plunge, and was rewarded with almost immediate success. Within a year he had won the Arthur Sullivan Composition Prize, had two string quartets played in London, and an orchestral Crossings Suite included in a Henry Wood Prom. In 1920 he completed his studies at the RCM and was promptly offered and accepted a teaching post there, remaining on the College’s staff until 1939. Two important stage commissions came his way at the same time: music for the 1921 Cambridge Greek Play, and for the West End premiere of Maeterlinck’s The Betrothed, sequel to the celebrated Blue Bird. More stage collaborations followed in 1923 and 1924: with A.P. Herbert on The Blue Peter—which won a Carnegie Award—and a play entitled Midsummer Madness by Clifford Bax, brother of the composer Arnold Bax. And distinguished collaborations were not confined to the stage. In 1923 he wrote an Oboe Concerto for Leon Goossens, who gave the first performance in 1927.

In 1922 Gibbs founded the Danbury Choral Society—an involvement which ended only with his death in 1960—and, following his choir’s entry for the 1923 Essex Festival, he joined the executive of the Essex Musical Association. This in turn led to a close involvement with the Festival Movement, not only as an extremely active and well-known adjudicator for nearly 30 years and Vice-President of the British Federation of Music Festivals from 1937–1952, but also the composer of a great deal of (as the New Grove Dictionary puts it) “utility music” for choirs and amateur orchestras. He became, in fact, a pillar of British musical orthodoxy, with an increasing distaste for modernism, and it is hardly surprising that when anew and very different musical establishment came to the fore in the 1960s—symbolised, perhaps, by William Glock’s regime at the Proms—much of the music that typified its predecessor was swept out of earshot.

It is also worth observing that the organisational and compositional duties of Gibbs’ official positions probably did little for the flowering of his original muse, though equally one should not imagine him a frustrated genius. For all that he stood for overtly “wholesome”, “decent” and “healthy” values in his art and life, (as stated unequivocally in his unpublished autobiography “Common Time”)—a “small c” conservatism whose very terms of reference and vocabulary must seem anachronistic and laughable to many today—he was in fact a sensitive, often unwell, insecure, highly gifted, and utterly sincere man whose niche suited much of his creative personality perfectly. What he might have achieved with a less publicly busy life is signalled, perhaps, in his symphonies—by far the most substantial and ambitious of those works seemingly not written to any kind of “order”.

“The New Grove” lists three orchestral symphonies by Armstrong Gibbs: a “No. 1”, No. 2 in E, and, No. 3 in B flat, Westmorland. The latter is indeed so numbered on its score, but the manuscript of the Symphony in E is headed just that, without number, and in the absence of any evidence for the earlier “No. 1”, it seems safe to dismiss that as a cataloguing error and regard the present work as Gibbs’ First, the “official” No. 3 status of the Westmorland being explained if we assume that Gibbs privately regarded the unnumbered choral Odysseus, composed in 1938, as his “Second Symphony”.

Gibbs’ reputation as a miniaturist whose talent most readily responded to the challenge of word-setting has almost certainly militated against his large-scale abstract works being taken up—or even taken seriously at all—but the undoubted confidence with which he tackled the ultimate musical challenge of the symphony when he began what we should now call Symphony No. 1 in E in September 1931 becomes somewhat less surprising given that the long series of string quartets which both pre- and post-dated it rendered him no stranger to “pure music”. One of the former (in E, Op. 18, 1918) achieved a Carnegie Prize, whilst one of the latter (in A, Op. 73, 1933) the Cobbett Gold Medal for Chamber Music. (This work even managed to get a complete recording on 78s by the Griller Quartet.)

The Symphony was completed in May 1932 and had its first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult in a broadcast on 29 October the same year. Such was Gibbs’ then eminence that it rated a review to itself in The Times two days later, which described it as “a work of spontaneous vigour as well as of the lyrical beauty that one would expect from so sensitive a songwriter… While it makes free use of passing dissonance and psychologically expresses a frame of mind that is consonant with the temper of the times, it is founded in tradition. It is modern in that it indulges no grand manner, but goes directly to its point…” Rather more questionably in the current politically correct climate, the review went on to opine that “it is English in that it equally avoids Teutonic long-windedness, Gallic niggling, and Celtic obscurity”. A year after the premiere it had its first public performance under the composer’s baton in Bournemouth, where it was again give in 1939, but there seem to have been no subsequent performances until the present recording.

Gibbs’ credentials as a natural symphonic thinker are most impressively demonstrated by the first movement, an elaborate sonata-rondo marked Allegro con fuoco. There are no “big tunes”, but an array of trenchant motives that go to work from the first bar (though the “con fuoco” remains well-mannered by the side even of the work’s British contemporaries). The first subject group is introduced by a decisive trumpet motif [1/1], elements of which are immediately explored by woodwinds and strings. Contrast comes with a wistful second subject melody on oboe [1/2]; a solo violin enters—cousin to Vaughan Williams’ “Lark”—rhapsodizing over the oboe melody now transferred to cor anglais. Renewed determination comes over the music; the strings stride purposefully downwards and then up to a dissonant climax where a decisive modulation precipitates the development. This, however, begins with a new fanfaring figure in the trumpets [1/3], followed by a steely scalic ascent of trombones against descending horns. Woodwind and strings again converse, and a particularly striking development of the first subject comes on solo flute [1/4], which later is recapitulated with a gentle jazz inflection.

The Poco lento e semplice slow movement [2/1] is a far simpler structure (indeed the pattern of a complex first movement succeeded by progressively simpler ones is characteristic of all three of Gibbs’ symphonies). Dreamy, rocking, slightly Delian chords in muted strings alternate with a wayward flute melody which later gets passed between the other woodwind. This exchange gives way to a strong, modally inclined statement [2/2] that functions rather like a ritornello. An un-muted solo string quartet enters, and the remainder of the movement is built upon alternations of these elements, amongst which fragments of the first movement’s second subject appear on an oboe.

The Allegro con brio scherzo [3] is a will-o’-the-wisp affair, with groups of brief motifs tossed from instrumental family to instrumental family with an almost Ravelian insouciance. There is barely a hint of a trio section and no formal restatement of the scherzo material. Structurally the finale is even simpler. The symphony’s cyclic credentials are established by both the Lento introduction to the movement [4/1] and the succeeding Tempo di marcia solenne [4/2] being based on the first movement’s principal themes. This latter half of the movement, somewhat like a junior cross between Vaughan Williams’ “Hunger march” in the finale of his London Symphony, and Respighi’s Roman legions tramping up the Appian Way, comes to a triumphant conclusion with a new, bold melody.

For all its clever thematic interplay (not to mention crystal-clear if “safe” scoring which certainly does not sound like the work of a stranger to the orchestra), this symphony is an emotionally neutral, objective work—emphatic not the case with its successor. The Symphony in E is the work of a securely-employed musician living in a comfortable home on his native territory. By the time Gibbs came to compose his Symphony No. 3 Westmorland, he and his family were evacuees in the Lake District—refugees, virtually, from the comfortable home now requisitioned for war purposes—with an income by no means secure, and stricken by wartime tragedy. Their son David had been killed in action on 18 November 1943, and it is impossible not to feel that this eloquent and moving work—perhaps Armstrong Gibbs’ masterpiece, and certainly his most considerable purely orchestral composition, though written for a slightly smaller orchestra than the Symphony in E—is music both of mourning and of consolation.

The first movement (headed “I will lift up mine eyes”) begins with a 44-bar Moderato introduction [5/1] which nevertheless has a numbed funereal quality, with quiet drumbeats and rolls underlying a climbing figure on horns and trombones, full of foreboding. Timpani crescendo to a decisive thump on the dominant, F, and an accelerando for the full orchestra unleashes the Allegro Deciso first subject [5/2], which unfolds purposefully until it slows and cadences into D-flat major for a long (18-bar) second subject melody [5/3] of great beauty and immediacy, introduced on the cellos. So memorable is it, indeed, that from here on its influence permeates the movement and indeed the remainder of the Symphony—not so much in a strictly thematic way (though it does come back literally at the end of the work), but as an emotional centre of gravity , an idealised place to be, to which the work strives to return. The melody is repeated, with richer orchestration, but its circular structure necessitates a huge effort to tear away from it and move into the development [5/4] of full. The first subject group lends itself to extension by overlapping entries, fruitful dismemberment, and redistribution amongst the orchestra; after a pause, the big tune comes back, but only its opening phrase, as a kind of feint. A passage of rushing strings seem to herald its full restatement, but instead sidesteps into a recapitulation of the first subject [5/5]—but of course then the second subject, in full, pealing panoply [5/6]. There is a general pause, and the music collapses back into the mood of the opening, a hushed postlude that dies away in the same muffled drumbeats.

Westmorland is a potent reaction to wartime peril, personal loss, and natural beauty, but the Lento second movement [6/1] is the only one inspired by a specific place in the Lake District. After introductory exchanges on horns and woodwind, “Cartmel Fell” is evoked first by an eloquent principal subject on divided lower strings (its opening descending quavers borrowed from the first movement big tune); then a cooler, questioning second motif first heard on a solo oboe [6/2], and finally a rather Elgarian third main idea [6/3] whose passionate intensity erupts like a crag through the surrounding sylvan beauty at each appearance.

Gibbs specifically labels his Vivace con fuoco third movement, “Weathers”, a scherzo, though again there is no formal ABA structure with a central trio. Bold opening timpani [7/1] introduce a string of vigorous, short-lived ideas. A swinging, singing violin tune [7/2] is the closest thing the movement has to a trio, but rather than leading to a restatement of the opening material (though the solo timps do return), it keeps the lion’s share of the end of the movement to itself.

The finale [8/1], entitled “The Lake”, is another slow movement: “A day of early June, without cloud or mist. At my feet the water lies mistily blue”. For this vision Gibbs dispenses with tuba, trumpets, triangle, and cymbals throughout, and trombones apart from a few bars near the end. Oscillating thirds in clarinets frame the picture. A long main theme, unmistakably consolatory in mood, emerges on oboe; a pause, and then a solo violin picks up the melody. Another pause, and then the cellos introduce what at first seems like anew idea but then transforms itself into an unmistakable reminiscence of the first movement second subject. Like a recalled chain of thought, ominousness returns with tolling timpani, and then the clouds part to reveal the finale’s main theme now on violins [8/2], the oscillating thirds transferred to violas. The first movement melody returns, darkened by trombones, and then the timpani, but at the last the solo violin soars clearly aloft into the June sky.

Though Gibbs’ superscription is unambiguous, the end of the finale is marked “Finished ad majorem Dei gloriam” Windermere November 4th 1944’. The catharsis had taken almost a year to arrive at creative fruition. The first performance came relatively quickly, by BBC forces at Manchester on 23 August 1945, but apart from one further BBC performance, at Glasgow in 1956, the Symphony seems not to have been heard again until the present recording. The large audience that exists for the music of his greater mentor, Vaughan Williams—probably overlapping a good deal with that which has eagerly seized upon their younger contemporary , George Lloyd—will now surely take it to their hearts.

© 1994 David J. Brown

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