In Gibbons’s ‘Cries,’ a social portrait, and a subtle warning
Today, First Church in Boston offers a special service marking Boston Charter Day (which was officially celebrated on Sept. 7), commemorating the 1630 formal creation of what was then the town of Boston. The service’s music re-creates something of what Boston’s first English settlers left behind, by means of works by a who’s who of Jacobean composers: Henry Purcell, Thomas Weelkes, Orlando Gibbons. And the music of the last — both parts of Gibbons’s “Cries of London” — is especially vivid: a stylized soundscape of a teeming 17th-century city.
Gibbons’s work, for viols and voices, was an elaborate, polished exemplar of an entire genre of works collecting and interweaving cries and songs of London’s peddlers and beggars. (Nor was London the only metropolis ringing with such appeals; witness both Clément Janequin’s and Jean Servin’s 16th-century “Cris des Paris.”) Beginning with the nightwatchman’s call marking 3 o’clock in the morning, Gibbons laces the score with an entire day’s worth of calls: vendors selling fish, fruits, ink, lace, and clothing; a ratcatcher plying his trade; a man in search of a lost horse; a chimney sweep; a patient begging on behalf of the mad inmates of Bedlam. At the end the watchman returns, heralding midnight.
In an added layer of stylization, Gibbons structured his “Cries” as an “In Nomine” — a free-flowing, plainchant-derived variation form popular among 16th- and 17th-century English composers. (The theme came from a plainchant-based mass by John Taverner, specifically the part of the Benedictus featuring the words “in nomine Domini” — in the name of the Lord.) Gibbons keeps the structure intact: The second treble viol plays the “In Nomine” theme in long tones, only giving way to the voices when a given cry coincides with the chant melody.
Its origin aside, the “In Nomine” genre was primarily secular. (One of its earliest practitioners, Christopher Tye, composed examples of especial playfulness, including one — appropriately subtitled “Crye” — instrumentally mimicking the type of calls Gibbons cataloged.) But perhaps Gibbons borrowed the form to give his “Cries” a poignant undercurrent. Peddlers and vendors were street people, indigent and marginalized. In the poetry, music, and engravings that preserved their cries and costumes, they were transformed into objects of fascination and amusement — but also warning. Gibbons, in yoking them to the name of the divine, may have been subtly reiterating a sobering reminder: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
First Church in Boston offers a nondenominational Charter Day Sabbath Service featuring music by Purcell, Weelkes, and Gibbons on Sunday at 11 a.m., simulcast on WERS-FM (88.9). www.firstchurchboston.org