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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

Armstrong Gibbs: A Countryman Born and Bred
by Angela Aries, Lewis Foreman and Michael Pilkington
Published 2014
ISBN: 978-0-9567753-2-0
EM Publishing

People discover composers in various ways. I came across the music of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (CAG) during the 1970s on a LP of ‘Sea Songs’ performed by Robert Lloyd and Nina Walker (Sea Fever, HMV ASD3545). ‘Hidden Treasure’ was one of four songs from the cycle Songs of the Mad Sea Captain alongside the standalone song, ‘Sailing Homeward’. I guess the title of the song-cycle rang some sort of bell: recently I had heard Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King: uncontrovertibly, there was nothing in common between those two works. Most people will know Armstrong Gibbs through just one piece – ‘Dusk’, from the Fancy Dress Suite, op.82. This is regularly played on Classic FM and has been released on many recordings of 'light' music.

In recent years a few CDs dedicated to Armstrong Gibbs’ music have appeared in the catalogues. Marco Polo presented two symphonies, No.1 in E minor, op.70 and No.3 in B flat, op.104, ‘Westmorland’ (8.223553). In 2010, Guild released a comprehensive account of the complete works for violin and piano (GMCD7353). An important project from Dutton Epoch gave listeners the opportunity to hear the choral symphony, Odysseus (CDLX7201). The songs have fared well, with two albums: one from Hyperion (CDA67337) and the other from Marco Polo (8.223458). Another significant release from Hyperion (CDA67093) included a number of orchestral works. Most other recordings of Armstrong Gibbs’ music feature on compilations of songs, piano music and chamber works.

A literature search will find one or two eminently helpful sources. Most recent is Rosemary Hancock-Child's A Ballad Maker, The Life and Songs of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. This was published by Thames in 1993. As the title suggests, much of the material in this short volume majors on the songs. Other musical works are mentioned only in passing. The late Ann E. Rust, who was the composer's daughter, produced an essay for the British Music Society Journal in 1989. This was more a 'personal memoir' than a study of the music.

My introduction to CAG's life was in the pages of Donald Brooks’ charming Composer's Gallery published in 1946. This book is often found in second-hand bookshops and is essential for all lovers of British Music. A booklet I have not seen is Daphne Woodward’s Essex Composers (1985) which notices Armstrong Gibbs. The current online Grove dedicates fewer than 500 words to the composer’s life and work: the Wikipedia article is much more comprehensive. I wonder if it was penned by one of the present authors.

A brief sketch of the composer’s life may help put this present book into context. Cecil Armstrong Gibbs was born at The Vineyards, Great Baddow in Essex on 10 August 1889. He graduated in history (1911) and then music (1913) from Cambridge where he studied with Edward Dent, Cyril Rootham and Charles Wood. Due to ill health he was unable to enlist in the forces during the First World War: at this time he taught at the Copthorne School in East Grinstead and then at the Wick School in Hove. After a successful production of the play Crossings (1919) by Walter de la Mare, with incidental music by the composer, he began studies at the Royal College of Music. His teachers included Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult. In 1921 he joined the staff of the RCM where he remained until 1939. In the early 1920s CAG moved to Danbury in Essex, although during the Second World War he relocated to Windermere, Cumberland, due to his house being requisitioned as a hospital. He returned to Danbury and stayed there until his death on 12 May 1960. During this period he was much occupied as an adjudicator for, and eventually Vice-President of, the National Federation of Music Festivals. Much of Armstrong Gibbs' music was composed for ‘amateur’ choirs, orchestras and theatres. However, there is a solid core that fulfills the requirements of the professional concert hall and recital room. His masterpieces may well be the choral symphony Odysseus, and the Symphony No. 3 ‘Westmorland’, written on the death of his son David in battle near the River Sangro in central Italy. Singers are surely grateful for his wide range of solo songs: instrumentalists have much to discover in his enormous catalogue of chamber music.

Armstrong Gibbs: A Countryman Born and Bred is divided into three parts, preceded by an introduction written by Ann Rust that gives a concise overview of her father’s accomplishment. Sadly, neither she nor her husband Lyndon survived to see publication of this present book.

The first section, by Angela Aries is biographical, the second, by Lewis Foreman examines the music and the final part is a comprehensive ‘List of Works’ compiled by Michael Pilkington.

Angela Aries has assembled a significant biographical study of Armstrong Gibbs: it is by far the largest part of the book. She has made considerable use of family letters and CAG's unpublished ‘autobiography’ and ‘essays.’ Footnotes tie in the many references. Aries has lived in Danbury for many years and used ‘local knowledge’ to advantage as she conducted research for this book. The author was fortunate in having the reminiscences of the composer’s daughter and son-in-law which has provided the narrative with a deeply personal character. One is conscious of a vast amount of information being imparted, with countless references to the great and good in the twentieth century artistic world. Yet the reader is never overburdened. What emerges is an intimate picture of a very busy and fascinating personality. It surprised me was just how ‘alive’ Armstrong Gibbs appears in these pages, bearing in mind he died some 55 years ago and was well and truly a Victorian. It is of huge credit to the author.

The progress of the text makes use of many photographs from the Armstrong Gibbs’ family collection: many are full page plates.

This section of the book is completed with the ‘Biographical Notes’. I found that this was most helpful, for although some of the personalities quoted in the text are familiar to enthusiasts of British Music, there are many names who have slipped out of historical favour. Included are literary, civic and ecclesiastical figures who play innumerable roles in this story. It is useful to have their dates and achievements at one’s fingertips, rather than having to ‘Google’.

I was a little bit disappointed in the ‘Select Bibliography’. It seems to cite books, but not articles and reviews. I accept that it is ‘select’, however, I believe that a wider range of material could have been listed. There are references to unpublished material such as the above-mentioned composer’s Autobiography (1958) and his collection of Essays (1958): no location of source is given.

The second section, ‘The Music of Armstrong Gibbs’ by Lewis Foreman is a major contribution to scholarship on the composer in particular, and English music in general. After noting CAG’s onetime popularity, his prolific catalogue and his musical versatility and diversity, he states that the composer found himself ‘out of time’. After the Second World War, the musical aesthetic changed, and Armstrong Gibbs did not. After 1960 ‘his music rather faded from sight. It was not the sort of idiom that the newly radical avant-garde … would then consider.’

The main outline of Foreman’s discussion is by genre, beginning with the theatre music. This is followed by the orchestral works, music for strings and small ensembles, chorus and orchestra, and songs – part, unison and solo, church music, chamber music and piano and organ. Within genres it is presented largely chronologically. Foreman has explored a massive range of Armstrong Gibbs' music, both in print and manuscript, in more or less detail. It will certainly be the first place to turn to for artists and reviewers wishing to gain an understanding of a ‘forgotten’ or even ‘recalled’ work.

For example, on page 244 he discusses the Symphony No. 1 in E minor, a work that has been recorded. He begins by setting it into the context of the composer’s life. The date of the first and subsequent performances are given. Foreman then examines the reception history of the work and sets it against the background of other roughly contemporary symphonies such as Bliss’s ‘Colour’ Symphony and Bax’s Third. He suggests that it was a notable success, but possibly soon to be overshadowed by other examples of the genre such as Walton’s First, Bax’s Fifth, Sixth and Seventh and RVWs Fourth. An unidentified review from the Edwin Evans Collection is printed in full. After this, Foreman gives a readable and approachable analysis of the work and concludes by quoting a draft programme note by the composer. It is an excellent template for musical analysis and this style is kept to a greater or lesser extent for all the works discussed.

The third part of the book was assembled by Michael Pilkington. The ‘Complete List of Works’ is in all honesty overwhelming. I never realised that Armstrong Gibbs wrote quite so much music. The list includes virtually everything composed, with the exception of some juvenilia. It is based on a compilation made by Ann and Lyndon Rust in 1994 which has been revised a few of times over the last twenty years. The List, which runs to 55 pages is presented by genre, beginning with ‘solo songs. All relevant particulars are given where appropriate. Pilkington notes that the composer was ‘not very methodical in his use of opus numbers…’ Important facts are there such as the location (or last known location) of the holographs, many of which have been donated to the British Library, The Royal College of Music and the Britten-Pears Archive in Aldeburgh. Where identified, details of the first performance are given. Other information such as the work’s duration, the author of texts, the publisher (where relevant), the instrumentation or vocal forces and titles of movements are all indicated.

I did find the font size for this catalogue a little small. I had to tackle this with a magnifying glass: I guess that it was produced at this size for economy of space. I would have liked a chronological listing of all the works which is helpful in contextualizing the composer’s career. These are minor complaints: Michael Pilkington’s list of works is a model of its kind.

The index is in two parts - an alphabetical list of works which only refers to Pilkington’s contribution and a general index which includes people, places, institutions and the composer’s music which are discussed in the text.

The book is well-made and is printed on quality paper. The font of the main text is clear and readable.

Angela Aries, who lives in Essex, has a background in teaching Modern Languages at Tertiary Education Level. She has long been an enthusiastic singer and has belonged to several choirs and choral societies. It was whilst singing with the Lingwood Consort in Danbury that she first discovered CAG's music. She is presently the secretary of the Armstrong Gibbs Society.

Lewis Foreman needs little introduction to students of British music. He has written and edited many books, essays and articles about a diverse range of composers and musical subjects and has given advice to many independent record and CD companies, most notably Dutton Epoch. Michael Pilkington was on the teaching staff at the Guildhall School of Music. He has produced a series of solo song repertoire studies for English composers including Ireland, Gurney, Delius, Parry and Stanford. Pilkington has edited many volumes of songs for Stainer & Bell and choral music for Novello.

Armstrong Gibbs: A Countryman Born and Bred, has been a number of years in the making. However, for all those interested in British musical history it has been well worth the wait. Readers will make various uses of this book. Clearly, it concentrates on CAG, but anyone involved in music from the first half of the twentieth century will discover a wealth of new material throughout these pages. Musicians wishing to ‘take up’ one or other of the composer’s many works will find it an ideal source for background information and the devising of programme notes.

This book is immediately approachable and does not obscure the composer and his musical achievement with complex, overly-technical analysis. It presents Cecil Armstrong Gibbs as a composer, an adjudicator, a teacher, a conductor and a family man in a highly readable and enjoyable manner that provides detailed facts and rigorous scrutiny of his life and music.

John France




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