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This life-and-works study of one of the numerous largely forgotten British composers is divided into three parts – the life, by Angela Aries; the music, by Lewis Foreman; and a complete list of works, assembled by Michael Pilkington.

Occupying about 200 pages, Angela Aries’s biographical section sympathetically traces Gibbs’s upbringing in Essex – scarred by the death of his mother when he was only two – his years at the Wick School, Hove, Winchester College, then, from 1908, Trinity College Cambridge. At the Royal College of Music he spent a year as a mature student (paid for by Adrian Boult), before fulfilling a part-time teaching position. Gibbs’s career, like that of many composers, would be supported by teaching and conducting, but he was also in demand as an itinerant adjudicator at festivals. His friendship with Vaughan Williams, with whom he studied composition at the RCM, is well documented here. Nervous attacks and phobias about travel reinforced Gibbs’s natural affection for country life, a circumstance which undermined his standing in the London musical scene.

Lewis Foreman’s 100-page survey of the music is typically comprehensive. What a service both he and Em Marshall-Luck (EM Festival, CDs and Publishing) provide on behalf of English music. Foreman is eminently perceptive, as we read in ‘The comparatively few weaknesses of Gibbs’s songs … are where he attempts … bigger issues’. In the song-cycle Joan of Arc, ‘Gibbs could not accept the challenge … to write heroically and on a dramatic scale.’

Who would guess that Gibbs composed 13 string quartets and three symphonies? He is best known for his songs – including many settings of Walter de la Mare, with whose work he felt a strong affinity – and that orchestral gem ‘Dusk’ from the Fancy Dress Suite. Within his limitations Gibbs composed much fine music, though sadly his works would begin to seem old hat as more progressive composers appeared.

With photographs and music illustrations – about 20 of each – this is a beautifully produced book. One major slip: the Tallis Fantasia was premiered by the composer, not Beecham.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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