Joseph Gibbs – a composer ahead of his time?

Joseph Gibbs – a composer ahead of his time?

By a happy coincidence, this April we discovered we hold the original will of 18th Century Baroque composer and Suffolk musical celebrity: Joseph Gibbs.

© National Portrait Gallery, London. Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, oil on canvas, circa 1755

© National Portrait Gallery, London. Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, oil on canvas, circa 1755

Compositions by Gibbs were performed by Eboracum Baroque at our ‘Taking Hold of History’ gala in March, and a quick scan of our catalogue revealed that in addition to copies of his music, his will is in our collections too!  Gibbs, though born in Essex (b.1698), spent the latter half of his life in Ipswich, assuming the position of organist of St Mary Le Tower, Ipswich in 1748 and holding this position until he died in 1788 – indeed, the deputy head chorister is still known as the Gibbs Chorister in his honour. Gibbs was buried by the organ stool.

St Mary Le Tower Church in 1698 (Ref: PT/242/30)

St Mary Le Tower Church in 1698 (Ref: PT/242/30)

Gibbs was the Suffolk musical celebrity of his time and a very important character in the story of Suffolk’s musical heritage.  His 8 violin sonatas (last recorded around 30 years ago) are considered to be among the best examples in existence from 18th Century England, and have been compared favourably to Handel’s.  When published, the subscription list to the sonatas featured the most famous musicians of the time as well as the ‘great and good’ of Ipswich.  Excitingly, Gibbs’  string quartets are among the earliest to be composed by an Englishman and are still to be recorded; though unfortunately none of his organ music survives.

Gibbs was a true ambassador of provincial music.  It seems likely that Gibbs knew fellow Suffolk composer John Carr, helping him get “The Grove/Rural Harmony” published in London in c.1760.  Gibbs’ own music is very forward-thinking for its time, reflecting European influences coming into Suffolk; consequently, it sounds a lot later than 1744.  Cambridgeshire composer Thomas Tudway, a contemporary of Gibbs, was somewhat ‘backward’ by contrast, recalling simple, pre-Reformation – and indeed beautiful – plain music.

Suffolk painter Thomas Gainsborough knew Gibbs through his involvement in the music scene of 18th Century Ipswich; like Gibbs, Gainsborough was a member of the Ipswich Musical Society, and painted Gibbs’ portrait which can be viewed in the National Portrait Gallery (Ref: NPG 2179).

More information about Gibbs’ life and music can be found on Roger Slade’s website “Eighteenth Century English Music” here and the ‘Here of a Sunday Morning’ website which is dedicated to early music.

A popular and well-liked chap, Gibbs was honoured with a full civic funeral (in Ipswich) when he died in 1788.  As wills go, his is not terribly exciting (his music, instruments and effects were apparently sold at auction a year after he died), but he describes himself as a ‘music master’ and carefully provides a trust for his two unmarried daughters.  The will features his signature and personal seal.

Joseph's will, showing his signature and seal IC/AA1/209/65

Joseph’s will, showing his signature and seal IC/AA1/209/65