Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (he disliked the name Cecil so was known as Armstrong) was a prolific and versatile composer of the first half of the twentieth century. He studied under Sir Adrian Boult and Ralph Vaughan Williams and was a contemporary of Herbert Howells, Sir Arthur Bliss and Sir Arnold Bax.
Known principally for his solo songs Gibbs also wrote music for the stage, sacred works, three symphonies and a substantial amount of chamber music. He gained wide recognition during the early part of his life, but recently, like many of his contemporaries, has been little known. Although he retired from adjudicating, he continued to compose and conduct up until his death in May 1960. He is buried with his wife Honor in Danbury churchyard.
Gibbs was born in 1889 at The Vineyards, Great Baddow, Chelmsford, the first child of Ida Gibbs (nee Whitehead ) and David Cecil Gibbs, the famous soap and chemicals manufacturer. His mother died when he was only two years old, so he was brought up by his five maiden aunts. So apparent were his musical gifts at a young age, that the aunts begged the boy’s father to send him abroad to receive a musical education. However David Cecil, who had himself been educated in Germany, was determined to give his son the benefit of an English public school education. Consequently the young Armstrong was sent first to a preparatory school on the Hove/Brighton border and then on to Winchester College.
From Winchester, Armstrong Gibbs gained an exhibition and a sizarship to Trinity College Cambridge to read history. After completing his History Tripos in 1911 he stayed on at Cambridge to take his Mus. B. During that period he received composition and harmony lessons from E. J. Dent and Charles Wood and studied the organ briefly under Cyril Rootham. Realising that he could not make a living from composition alone, he decided to take up teaching. He spent just over a year at Copthorne School, East Grinstead, before returning to his old preparatory school, The Wick. Although he was not able to compose as much as he had hoped, he did write some songs to poems of Walter de la Mare. On being asked to produce a play for the headmaster’s retirement in 1919, Armstrong Gibbs approached de la Mare directly and was delighted when the author produced the play Crossings for him to set to music.
Entry to the Royal College of Music
The producer of the play, Armstrong Gibbs’ old composition teacher E.J. Dent, brought the young Adrian Boult down to conduct Crossings. He was so impressed with the music that he generously offered to fund Gibbs for a year as a mature student at the Royal College of Music. Encouraged by his wife, Honor, to take up the challenge, Armstrong Gibbs resigned from his post and moved back to Essex. After a year at the RCM studying conducting under Boult and composition under Vaughan Williams, he accepted a part-time teaching post at the college.