Gibbons was the leading English composer of his generation. He was born in Oxford, and held positions as Organist of the Royal Chapel, as keyboard player in the privy chamber of the all-important court of Prince Charles, and finally as organist at Westminster Abbey. He died an early death at Canterbury Cathedral, while awaiting the arrival of the new Queen Henrietta Maria. Gibbons' lifetime corresponded to the highest point in English music – a time when it dominated the music of the continent as it had never done before and would barely do since – moreover, he was known for "the best finger of that age." His position among the private musicians of Prince Charles (later King Charles I) helped to inaugurate one of the greatest eras in chamber music that Western music has seen. Together with his colleagues, the composers Alfonso Ferrabosco II, John Coprario, and Thomas Lupo, Gibbons pioneered new scorings and approaches in consort music which would lead to a repertory eclipsed in volume and depth only by the works of the Viennese School. It was presumably due largely to his influence that organ accompaniment became standard in consort works, otherwise for strings.
Gibbons is also well-known for his sacred choral music, of which he left a substantial volume. He was among the first major English choral composers schooled entirely in the Protestant universe, and his highly polished English anthems are among the finest in the repertory. He is still regarded as one of the great masters of the verse anthem, in which sections for full choir alternate with passages for soloists and organ (or viol consort) accompaniment. His Magnificent "Second Service" (in the "verse" style) continues to be one of the most highly regarded masterpieces in the genre. Gibbons also composed numerous consort songs, both as purely vocal madrigals and as solo songs with viol consort accompaniments. His strongly evocative "Cries of London" is one of the most peculiar and strangely effective consort songs of the period. Gibbons' lifetime saw a huge volume of music composed in England, in exactly the genres he employed. However, the quality of his output in both sacred choral and chamber music allows him to stand head and shoulders above the many fine composers of his generation. His music continues to be widely admired today, while his choral music has been a constant part of the English cathedral repertory. In fact, no less a personage than the pianist Glenn Gould has named Gibbons as his favorite composer. ~ Todd McComb (6/94)