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Unjustly Neglected

In this specially extended feature,
Armstrong Gibbs' re-discovered
'Passion according to St Luke'


The English composer Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960), whose Passion according to St Luke has just received [on Friday 31 March 2017] what is almost certainly its premiere performance in The Cathedral of All Saints, Derby, UK by the cathedral's Voluntary Choir, is one of that collection of British composers whose music was unjustly neglected from the 1960s onwards. This was largely owing to their allegiance to tonal idioms, deemed to be of the past, in preference to the 'modern' and Serialist elements then coming into vogue.

The existing pencil vocal score of the Passion, which is undoubtedly the only source, strongly suggests that here is a major work that remained unperformed. It is characterised as 'The Passion according to St Luke by C. Armstrong Gibbs, for soloists, choir and piano or organ: vocal score, pencil, dated, 66 pages and title page'.

Now at last a knowledgeable and enterprising musician has taken up the cudgels on its behalf. David Johnson, formerly assistant organist at Derby Cathedral, stumbled across the Passion amongst some Armstrong Gibbs manuscripts at the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh, and was struck by the cogency of the writing — far too good to be left in a drawer or on the shelf.

David Johnson, to whom credit goes for bringing to life Armstrong Gibbs' 'Passion according to St Luke'
David Johnson, to whom credit goes for bringing to life Armstrong Gibbs' 'Passion according to St Luke'

So with the assistance of Dr Nicholas Clark, the librarian at Aldeburgh — which is home to most of Gibbs' Nachlass of writings, letters, scores and manuscripts — Mr Johnson obtained a copy of the pencil MS and set about proofing and editing it for performance. The task proved not too onerous, for, as he explains, Gibbs' writing was quite legible, and the music not too badly in need of editing, adapting or 'realising'. This task, such as it was, and the business of typesetting it for the first time, he willingly undertook.

The result is that David Johnson has generously furnished us with a very acceptable new, essentially 'unknown' 1950s work, in a largely tonal idiom but with many interesting additional touches, chromaticism and so on, suitable for performing by any choral society, or — arguably — by even a good or accomplished parish choir.

Armstrong Gibbs' 'St Luke Passion' - the opening page, typeset and edited by David Johnson
Armstrong Gibbs' 'St Luke Passion' - the opening page, typeset and edited by David Johnson. Click on the image for higher resolution

At Eastertide, Stainer's well-known and much lauded The Crucifixion is often performed. So, very occasionally, is Charles Wood's St Mark Passion. Wood was one of Gibbs' composition teachers; another was E J Dent. His organ teacher, fifteen years his senior, was briefly the influential composer Cyril Rootham, later organist of St John's College, Cambridge, who was also one of Gibbs' friend Arthur Bliss's teachers.

From left to right: Gordon Bryan, Cyril Rootham, Arthur Bliss, Dan Godfrey, George Dixon, Armstrong Gibbs and Patrick Hadley. Photo by kind permission of the Cyril Rootham website at
From left to right: Gordon Bryan, Cyril Rootham, Arthur Bliss, Dan Godfrey, George Dixon, Armstrong Gibbs and Patrick Hadley. Photo by kind permission of the Cyril Rootham website at Click on the image for higher resolution

But that The Passion according to St Luke should have languished for so long without being recovered seems an injustice. Now Armstrong Gibbs' work, full of feeling, has at last been aired, conducted with spirit and insight by David Johnson, with Hugh Morris, Director of Music at Derby Cathedral taking the important organ part.

A review of that premiere performance of the Passion follows below. However it is preceded, to provide context, by some background information about Armstrong Gibbs, his music and recordings.

Many composers working in the 1920s-1950s were, like Gibbs, affected or unjustly simply ditched from radio, or subsequently, concert programmes. These not insignificant figures included Arnold Cooke, Rutland Boughton, William Lloyd Webber, Edgar Bainton (who has long continued to be remembered for one anthem), Ernest Moeran, York Bowen, Havergal Brian, Cyril Scott, Rebecca Clarke, William Alwyn, Bernard Stevens, George Lloyd and (surprisingly) even the Serialists Alan Bush and Humphrey Searle. Malcolm Arnold was not spared. A few, such as Tippett, Elizabeth Lutyens and Elizabeth Maconchy, all modernists to a degree, were mercifully not affected.

Part of this was an inevitable but infuriating process by which music moves on — so that works are only rediscovered perhaps three or four decades later, as the new 'modern' era in turn falls out of fashion. This has to some extent happened with a reversion from extreme modernism since the 1990s, where many composers — James MacMacmillan is a good example — have drawn from it but reverted to a more approachable format. An additional reason is that a number — and only a modest number — of Armstrong Gibbs' works are what might be termed lighter music, often characterised by fanciful or fey titles, rather as John Ireland's piano works are.

Now a lasting wrong is being rectified: all of those composers mentioned have mercifully surfaced on CD in the past three decades — some of them quite extensively — thanks to pioneering labels like Lyrita, Dutton, Chandos, Albany, Hyperion and Naxos, and the eagerness of buyers to discover and explore music that is new to them. This is a development enthusiastically to be welcomed, and to some extent Armstrong Gibbs has benefited.

Armstrong Gibbs — he fervently disliked the name Cecil — was, it has been said, one of those many English composers who, without pretensions to 'significance' or greatness, left 'much attractive and worthwhile music without which we would be the poorer'. But perhaps, when his output comes to be assessed as a whole, he was more than that.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, with a portrait of himself as a young child. Photos: The Armstrong Gibbs Society
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, with a portrait of himself as a young child. Photos: The Armstrong Gibbs Society

Gibbs (a contemporary of Eric Coates, Ernest Bullock, Gurney, Bliss and Howells), who admired Debussy but abhorred Schoenberg and Wagner, employing chromaticism but never rendering it as integral as that, was notably prolific. Recordings of his considerable oeuvre have appeared slowly, although virtually none of it is choral.

Recordings of music by Armstrong Gibbs are now proliferating
Recordings of music by Armstrong Gibbs are now proliferating

His songs, now widely admired by cognoscenti and introduced by leading singers to the concert platform — Gibbs composed more than 150; among poets he was drawn to, a particular favourite was Walter de la Mare, who became a personal friend — are helping to restore his reputation overall. An enterprising Hyperion disc (CDA 67337) remarkably includes some 36 solo songs, shared between soprano Bernadette Greevy and baritone Steven Varcoe, with Roger Vignoles accompanying. Another 25 can be found on the Naxos-administered Marco Polo label (8.223458).

Janet Baker included two songs by Armstrong Gibbs on her English Song collection
Janet Baker included two songs by Armstrong Gibbs on her English Song collection

Several of his songs appear intermittently on other discs, a couple most notably sung by Dame Janet Baker. One further historic recording made available previously by Dutton is by the Griller Quartet, a formidable and celebrated ensemble of the 1930s and '40s, who include Gibbs' String Quartet in A, Op 73 with works by Bax and Elizabeth Maconchy.

The Gibbs, in effect his fifth quartet — by 1922 he had already composed four — first heard at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1933 (at which his work The Love Talker, Op 75, for mezzo-soprano and or orchestra, was also premiered), was second prizewinner in a competition sponsored by The Daily Telegraph. The Dutton disc is not currently listed, and is available, seemingly, only second-hand. Appallingly, the vast majority of Armstrong Gibbs' chamber works remain unpublished.

Gibbs' complete works for violin and piano are also now available, played by Robert Atcheson, Artistic Director of the Festival, on the Guild Label (GMCD 7353). A particularly delightful and enterprising disc of mainly lighter pieces for strings, but also including his eight minute Threnody for Walter de la Mare, in token of the poet's death aged 83 in 1956, just four years before Gibbs, who was predeceased by his wife in 1958, himself died of pneumonia at seventy-one, and his three movement suite Dale and Fell (circa 1944), also appear on Hyperion CDA 67093. One of his most popular pieces, Peacock Pie, for piano and strings, also features with his wartime Concertino for piano and string orchestra Op 103 (1942) on CDA 67316, Hyperion's admirable pianist here being the versatile Martin Roscoe. A fair amount of Gibbs' string music, and a large body of chamber music, will hopefully find its way gradually onto disc.

A magnificent, vigorous and varied orchestral CD from Dutton (SACD CDLX 7324) consists almost entirely of first recordings, including the Suite for violin and orchestra and the Symphonic Poem A Vision of Night, with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by one of the great champions of British music, Ronald Corp. There was also an Oboe Concerto, written in 1923 for its dedicatee Leon Goossens, the premier performer of this time, which was issued (though currently not listed) on Dutton CDLX 7201, with Martin Yates, another indefatigable champion of English music, conducting Liverpool's RLPO.

As well as songs and chamber music, Gibbs' Symphonic output is being recognised
As well as songs and chamber music, Gibbs' Symphonic output is being recognised

Gibbs' presumed First Symphony in E — although a certain early mention suggests there might possibly have been a previous one — dates from 1931-2 and was first heard in October 1932, with Sir Adrian Boult, who had previously supported Gibbs financially in student days, conducting.

The (apparent) Second was the choral symphony Odysseus, a bracing and colourful work, dating from the late thirties but first performed, belatedly, in 1946, which Gibbs considered to be amongst his finest. The First and Third — a valuable way of exploring the composer's symphonic oeuvre — are on Marco Polo 8.223553; while Odysseus is paired with Dyson (to whom Gibbs dedicated his 1932 chorus and orchestral work The Highwayman, written for Gibbs' old school, Winchester, where Dyson was Director of Music), again with the BBC Concert Orchestra, on Dutton CDLX 7201.

The Third Symphony (Op 104) he entitled the Westmorland: Gibbs and his wife were living in what is now Cumbria at that point of the war — their house in Essex having been commandeered as a military hospital — and thus the composition followed the unfortunate death in the Second World War Italian campaign of their only son, David, who — named after his grandfather and having attended Winchester College like his father — was killed in Italy in late 1943. For his parents, it was a tragic loss.

One valuable asset has been the formation of the enthusiastic Armstrong Gibbs Society ( Based at Danbury, just south-east of Chelmsford, the village where Gibbs and his wife lived in later life, the Society has organised four festivals in September of, or featuring, Armstrong Gibbs' music: in 2008 and 2010, mostly devoted to Gibbs' chamber, sacred and string music; and 2012 and 2014, when the repertoire seems to have broadened out. The next Festival, to be staged as usual at the Parish Church of St John, Danbury, is planned to take place in September 2017.

The three most recent Armstrong Gibbs Festivals in Essex. The first was held in 2008. Photos - The Armstrong Gibbs Society
The three most recent Armstrong Gibbs Festivals in Essex. The first was held in 2008. Photos - The Armstrong Gibbs Society

One interesting element would be to see his copious stage music revived. Between 1919 and 1921 Gibbs composed four sets of incidental music for plays, a ballet, and, in 1923, the first of his four operas (for the Royal College of Music), the second (in 1946) being a full but still unpublished operatic setting of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, for which he had written incidental music ten years earlier, the next a children's opera, and the last (1953) Mr Cornelius, a 'Romantic' (comic) opera which the BBC, to his regret, failed to take up.

He dedicated his 1921 symphonic poem A Vision of Night to (Sir) Arthur Bliss, who remained a close friend from College days and throughout Gibbs' life. Other works were dedicated to Sir Hugh Allen, Gibbs' RCM teacher E J Dent, the writer Clifford Bax, younger brother of Arnold Bax, Vaughan Williams, Adrian Boult, the sopranos Isobel Baillie and Elsie Suddaby, the contralto Astra Desmond, the bass Keith Falkner and Ernest Bullock, Master of the Music at Westminster Abbey. Other dedications indicate his generous-hearted commitment to amateur music-making: The Morris Motors Male Voice Choir; The National Federation of Boys' Clubs; The Sale & District Choral Society (Psalm 121, a cappella); The Felling Male Voice Choir, Gateshead; The Westmorland Orchestra (Dale and Fell, for piano and strings, 1953); and The Federation of Women's Institutes.

Not just the life, but the works and recordings of Armstrong Gibbs, which are listed in extensive detail and chronological order on the Society's website, also indicating whether the work is published or not, are surely worth exploring by anyone who appreciates the musical legacy of early 20th century British music, and Gibbs' quite significant part in it. In addition, two books are of help in this respect:

Armstrong Gibbs: a Countryman Born and Bred, a new book (2014) on the composer by Angela Aries, French specialist and a regular singer with a Consort based locally in Danbury, and the eminent English music specialist Lewis Foreman, with a catalogue by Michael Pilkington, likewise deeply versed in English music, who has done much to transcribe Gibbs' works for the Society, and to prepare or update lists of his compositions and CDs, has recently been published, with the Society's involvement and support, by EM Publishing, the very active imprint of the English Music Festival.

 'A Countryman Born and Bred' - a new book about Armstrong Gibbs, and a recent book about his Artsongs
'A Countryman Born and Bred' - a new book about Armstrong Gibbs, and a recent book about his Artsongs

This joins a previous book, A Ballad Maker: The Life and Songs of C Armstrong Gibbs, by the pianist and composer Dr Ro (Rosemary) Hancock-Child (also the biographer — and performer — of the composer Madeleine Dring). Her detailed book was published in 1993 by (the former) Thames Publishing. 'A Ballad Maker' is the title of one of Gibbs' songs.

The composer was born on 10 August 1889 at 'The Vineyards', in the village of Great Baddow, just west of Danbury. His father was the well-off son of the founder of D & W Gibbs toothpaste — latterly Gibbs SR — which enjoyed massive postwar sales, and in 1955 achieved the first ever advertisement shown on ITV, the UK's new independent television channel. The father was unduly severe on his son, and this had a permanent effect. However before that, when he was aged three, a family member (an aunt: he was brought up by five aunts) found that he had perfect pitch. He was improvising at the piano from a very early age.

However Cecil lost his mother, Ida, in childbirth when he was aged only two; the severity and 'draconian' attitude of his father, David Cecil Gibbs, may have had something to do with her absence (or the role of the aunts). From preparatory school in Sussex he won a scholarship to Winchester College. Later when teaching from 1913 (he was pronounced unfit for war service) he formed his close friendship with the poet Walter de la Mare, whose poetry was to inspire some of his finest songs.

The cover of Gibbs' Threnody for his friend Walter de la Mare, for string orchestra, as published by Goodmusic Publishing
The cover of Gibbs' Threnody for his friend Walter de la Mare, for string orchestra, as published by Goodmusic Publishing

After a period of prep school teaching, Gibbs and his wife moved back in 1919 to Danbury in Essex, where he later had built a new house, 'Crossings' (named after the prep school play that first brought him into close contact with Walter de la Mare). He loved country and village life, and took a full part in it. He meanwhile founded and conducted the Danbury Choral Society, and also soon made a name as a skilled music examiner.

From the mid-1920s, and especially the 1930s and 1940s, more time became available to him for composition, and his output in all genres, including secular part songs, was certainly prolific. He especially valued being for fifteen years Vice-Chairman of the British Federation of Music Societies, which he only relinquished in 1952, a good deal of which will have involved choral works (as well as chamber and orchestral music).

Given Derby Cathedral's recovery of this long-abandoned work, the St Luke Passion (1945), what of his choral output as a whole?

The Armstrong Gibbs Society's well-packed website notes a vast array of choral music, much of it with orchestra, only a proportion of which is noted below. It includes the early setting (1928) of John Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci — already his Op 64, and dedicated to York Minster's organist, the superlative choral composer Edward Bairstow. Next year followed The Birth of Christ, premiered at the Three Choirs Festival, with the top-notch trio of Elsie Suddaby, Steuart Wilson and Keith Falkner as the distinguished soloists. The biblical cantata Deborah and Barak (Op 88, 1936) was first performed the following year by the Huddersfield Choral Society under Malcolm Sargent. Somewhat later, The High Adventure, Op 136 (1953), was a kind of spirited choral pageant of great moments in British history.

Gibbs in playful mood with his friend Arthur Bliss and a more formal portrait. Photos: The Armstrong Gibbs Society
Gibbs in playful mood with his friend Arthur Bliss and a more formal portrait. Photos: The Armstrong Gibbs Society

Armstrong Gibbs' hour-long choral symphony Odysseus (1937-8, see above for recording) was finally premiered in 1946 by the Newcastle & Gateshead Choral Union, in Newcastle City Hall. A Saviour Born (Op 133, 1952) is one of several significant works Gibbs wrote for female voices. Soon after came Behold the Man (Cantata for Passiontide, 1954), and later The Turning Year (1958) a Cantata for mixed voices and orchestra designed initially for teenage singers, and again for younger performers (with baritone solo, originally taken by Owen Brannigan), a Suite of Songs from the British Isles, suitably jaunty in manner.

There was much sacred music. The St Luke Passion aside, Gibbs composed some forty anthems or motets, ten or more of them to texts from the psalms; an Evening Service (a cappella) from 1939 and another from 1944 (the latter unusually set the Cantate Domino and Deus Misereatur); as well as six hymn tunes (one named after his home village), a dozen or so carols (for one of which, 'Oxen cribbed in barn and byre', he wrote the words himself) and a handful of hymn tunes. Amid these came Armstrong Gibbs' setting of the Passion.

The Passion according to St Luke has quite a well-established musical history. The very earliest English polyphonic Passion is in fact a setting from St Luke's Gospel, dating from the early 1400s, a period (under the Lancastrian kings) including John Dunstaple and Leonel Power, but otherwise not too well represented in the known repertoire — unlike the late 15th century, the period of Richard Davy and John Browne, which can boast a substantial number of composers.

Baroque settings included a St Luke Passion by Schütz, one once attributed, now doubtfully, to J S Bach (BWV246), two — 1728 and 1744 — usually perceived (although in one case uncertainly) to be by Telemann; one (later) by C P E Bach; and a bracing half hour long partial setting by the Leipzig-trained Reinhard Keiser, latterly precentor of Hamburg Cathedral and earlier a major (especially operatic) influence on Handel. For some time it was tradition that settings of all four Gospel accounts should be performed in a musical setting during Holy Week, that of St Luke being allotted Wednesday before Easter.

The modern era has produced some striking sequels. There are contemporary settings by the Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds; the German Wolfgang Rihm (Deus Passus — partially based on St Luke); the now fifty-year-old setting by the now 83-year-old Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (conducted at London's South Bank in March by Vladimir Jurowski, featuring baritone Omar Ebrahim as the expressive Latin narrator); two further settings by the Greek female composer Calliope Tsoupaki, and by the Norwegian Kjell Mork Karlsen (2006); and the wonderfully sympathetic recent setting by Sir James MacMillan, which is already being widely performed.

And now, belatedly but fortunately, we have that by C Armstrong Gibbs. The dates on his Passion according to St Luke MS indicate the two parts were completed in April and May 1945, and he gives the day he presumably completed it, 4 May 1945, just a couple of days before the final end of war with Germany (7-8 May). It is thus a work written under the shadow of the final throes of conflict.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs in mid life. Photo: The Armstrong Gibbs Society
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs in mid life. Photo: The Armstrong Gibbs Society

Carefully edited by David Johnson so as to provide a performable edition, Gibbs' Passion was given what is believed to be its first performance in the Cathedral of All Saints, Derby by the Cathedral Voluntary Choir (who provided several of the solos), under David Johnson's thoughtful, well-informed direction.

Armstrong Gibbs' symphony Odysseus has been likened to Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony, a comparison that may suggest something of the style, or elements within it, of his present Passion according to St Luke. While it can be seen as written in the essentially tonal vein of the early twentieth century, in the newly restored work you can undoubtedly hear echoes of VW, one of Gibbs' teachers, in his haunting use of parallel fifths, and occasional sumptuous added-note chords, with all of which he peppers the score.

The Derby premiere proved not just a worthwhile, but a highly attractive and inspiring performance of a work that well justifies its (re)discovery. The choir — all voices — grew into the work, soon achieving some impressive tutti. Some parts — the explosive later turbae (shouts from the Jerusalem crowd) for instance, set in lively and contrasting polyphony, clearly follow in Bach's footsteps both in structure and in manner, and impact strongly on the listener.

Cathedral of All Saints, Derby
Cathedral of All Saints, Derby. Click on the image for higher resolution

By contrast, Armstrong Gibbs does not embark on emotive or Pietist arias, or reflective choruses, commenting on the action or elaborating upon it, the way Bach and others of his era did. Partly this is to keep the narrative flowing. Rather, he concentrates on unfolding the Gospel story smoothly and lucidly, and at times forcefully. The Passion was no less appealing for that, although just possibly one consequence of this step-by-step, strictly Gospel narrative approach, free of flights of fancy, was the danger of a lack of variety.

The setting is for choir, solos (some of which are taken by choir members) and organ ('or piano'), and begins, as many do, with Judas' approach to the Chief Priests, prior to his betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane. The sequence of events was much enhanced by a capable and sympathetic performance from tenor Samuel Horan, singing expressively the role of the 'Narrator', able to cope with what is sometimes a far from straightforward part, and equally capable of shaping a polished recitative — or arioso — of the kind Armstrong Gibbs writes with obvious competence, not without some of the characteristic sweetness of English-style harmony, particularly when set against the bare recitation tones of the Evangelist and the words of Jesus. But not always: despite the relatively conventional harmony and largely tonal manner, Gibbs' approach is quite hybrid, a mix of styles, and this unpredictability contributes to making the relatively straightforward approach more interesting.

The role naturally calls for something less serene — for passion and intensity in places, such as the Gethsemane scene, the tale of Peter's denials, the scourging and journey to Golgotha, and the Crucifixion and ensuing scene at the tomb. This benefited greatly from Horan's quiet (sometimes a little too quiet), nicely flowing narration; as also from his zealous, impassioned outbursts in places, as the story slowly unfolded and apparent tragedy descended. All this requires constant changes of mood in choir and orchestra, something which David Johnson capably elicited from the alluring Armstrong Gibbs score, and from his singers and players.

Equally, it was noted, 'If the soloist has got a vast number of words to get through, it's important he doesn't wax too lyrical in the unfolding narrative — it needs to be kept moving; by contrast, when the chorus come in with "Away with this man" and "crucify": those sorts of cries obviously need repetition.'

Opposite Horan's narrator, or in tandem with him, was the gaunt and daunting, yet clearly forgiving, figure of Christ himself. Armstrong Gibbs has no problems making Christ a figure of great presence and intensity, right to the very end when we hear his cries from the cross. This role was wonderfully taken by the cathedral's precentor, Rev Christopher Moorsom, a former Oxford (Christ Church) choral scholar, one of Peter Phillips' early Tallis Scholars, and audibly a singer of with a particular gift of characterisation.

Here was evidence of Gibbs' warm grasp and understanding of how to write for the voice. Especially important was Moorsom's reading of the role of Jesus: here serene, here encouraging, always benevolent, but also by contrast righteously impassioned, indignant, commanding, forceful and, in the trial scenes, quietly combative. One was intensely struck and touched to the quick by this performance.

At the close, Jesus' yearning cries from the cross (eg 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do') were not just moving but verged on heartbreaking, and elsewhere his focused and finessed singing confirmed how effective Gibbs' music is, in many places, in conveying the shifting moods of the Gospel narrative. Somehow Moorsom got below the music, finding its underlayer and substrate, and by the empathy, potency, assuredness and touching power of his interpretation he shared with us, especially, the full import of those last few days and moments.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. Photos: The Armstrong Gibbs Society
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. Photos: The Armstrong Gibbs Society

There is also some of the fluency of Gibbs' varied output of, and love for, Art Song, heard in a couple of tender and moving later solos for Jesus. This performance of Christ, and the intensity revealed by the expressive singing here, suggests the work would surely fit well into a Good Friday meditation or period of reflection anywhere.

The organ accompaniment ('or piano', states the score) — it is much more than that, having a good degree of independence — patently did need some adapting, reduction or reallocation by its adroit performer: it is quite intricate in places, and Armstrong Gibbs' musical language is quite a personal one, demanding sensitivity, proficiency and a shrewd grasp of the idiom.

The choice of keyboard registrations by Hugh Morris, Derby Cathedral's Director of Music, and his elegant, almost acrobatic, shifting between them so as to produce appropriate — and relevant — colourings, made not unnaturally a major contribution to the impact of the whole work: Derby's organ can boast some particularly well-voiced diapasons, including soft ones, apt for supporting much of the narrative, which were used to terrific and inventive effect. But Morris' shifting introduction of woodwind (flute, oboe) and occasional brass — again, a lucid sound — made for considerable variety, and the pedal stops, themselves expressive where necessary, never overbore.

In the earlier stages, indeed right from the start, Armstrong Gibbs introduces a distinctive, dotted-rhythm, trumpeting motif that recurs in the keyboard part, whether separately or woven into the texture. Its appearances help lend a feeling of shape or structure, and the organ interludes tend to accentuate the implications of separate scenes even where there are no 'numbers' as such. Here and there at key moments chromaticism further colours the harmony, sometimes surprisingly, even tortuously: elsewhere, normal diatonic harmony is deployed quite imaginatively, so that the periodic dramatic outbursts from the keyboard proved striking and effective.

One was reminded from time to time by this late- or modern-Romantic approach, not just of the modal inflections of Vaughan Williams, with plenty of consecutive fifths, rich, warm chords, progressions you would not necessarily expect. But in the more exploratory passages, and some rather scrumptious sequences and chordings towards the end, of some of the larger, more extended choral works of Herbert Howells. (Bizarrely, one sequence, when Jesus is brought before Herod, is deliberately oriental in demeanour, but emerges strangely like a rather corny pastiche of a Hollywood movie.)

The choir was a little cautious at times, and this — just momentarily — interfered with the tuning. But the issue largely resolved itself, and was never a major problem. The chorus mastered quite a lot of ably-crafted polyphonic treatment, well handled by all, soundly conducted, and clear evidence that Gibbs, a pupil of Charles Wood, knew well how to write for voices, and was tangibly a master of his craft.

As events move towards the trial before High Priest and Pilate, there were many salient moments: some useful (and well thought through) lesser solos; a striking ostinato supporting just the men's voices; the terrifying and aggressive cries of 'Crucify him!' The last two choruses, more ruminative and reflective, were simply excellent, underlining the moment where Christ 'gave up the ghost.'

Much else latterly hinges on the various soloists: the Narrator's 'Which is called Calvary', deeply expressive; Jesus' pleading 'Father, forgive them, for they known not what they do' (this section movingly accompanied by organ strings and diapasons, and then soft reeds); the affixing of the superscription on the cross, 'This is the King of the Jews'; the pair of tenor malefactors, a particularly well devised and well-cast scene, with the bad thief's railing ('If thou be Christ, save thyself and us'), set against the good thief's plaintive cry 'Lord, remember us when you come into Your Kingdom'. The Narrator's continuation 'When he had cried with a loud voice, he said "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit"', and the choir's concluding meditation, all had great force and impact.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs at home with his wife Honor, and their son David, who was killed in Italy in 1943. The St Luke Passion may relate to his death. Photos: the Armstrong Gibbs Society
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs at home with his wife Honor, and their son David, who was killed in Italy in 1943. The St Luke Passion may relate to his death. Photos: the Armstrong Gibbs Society

To recover such a worthwhile work and give it a belated first airing requires commitment and dedication, and one can only be grateful to David Johnson for his enterprise in seeking out this Passion according to St Luke and bringing it to such worthwhile fruition. Derby Cathedral and its Voluntary Choir are to be congratulated on fronting such a discovery, and promoting a work that clearly deserved unearthing. It is to be hoped that publication, and maybe even in due course a disc, might follow.

The works of Armstrong Gibbs as a whole, of which an extensive list can be found on the Armstrong Gibbs Society's website, are surely worth exploring by anyone who appreciates the musical legacy of early twentieth century British music. As the existing Dutton, Hyperion, Marco Polo and other discs show, the rewards are there for the picking.

Copyright © 1 May 2017 Roderic Dunnett,
Coventry UK







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