Orlando Gibbons, born in Oxford, came of a musical family, like his near contemporary, Thomas Tomkins. His father William (c. 1540-1595) was appointed one of the waits at Cambridge in 1567, a fact which, at this time, would indicate that he was a singer or instrumentalist, or both. Orlando's brothers Edward (c. 1570-c. 1650) and Ellis (1573-1603) are each represented by a small number of surviving works. Christopher (1615-1676), his son, was to achieve an estimable position as a composer of the baroque period. As might be expected, some confusion in attributions has resulted from the fact that several members of the family composed. Orlando, in 1596, entered the choir at King's College, Cambridge. He became organist of the Chapel Royal in 1605, and in 1606 took the degree of Mus. Bac. at Cambridge. On May 17, 1622, the Chair of History at Oxford was founded by William Camden (1551-1623), the antiquary and historian, and at his request the degree of Mus. Doc. was conferred upon Gibbons on this occasion. In 1623, Gibbons became organist of Westminster Abbey, and as such he officiated at James I's funeral in 1625. Soon thereafter he himself died suddenly at Canterbury where, with the rest of the Chapel Royal, he had gone in attendance upon Charles I; the new king was waiting there to leave for Dover and meet his bride Henrietta Maria upon her arrival from France.
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--he published his sole volume of madrigals in 1613--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.