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EMU voice professor-turned-sleuth to sing ‘lost’ music of Armstrong Gibbs

James Richardson
James Richardson. Photo courtesy Eastern Mennonite University.

James Richardson, who teaches voice at Eastern Mennonite University, will present his lecture recital, featuring as-of-yet unpublished songs of the late British composer Armstrong Gibbs, on Friday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m.

Richardson will collaborate with pianist David Berry, director of the music department.

The event will be livestreamed on EMU’s Facebook Live, and is free and open to the public.

The recital, titled “A Few Songs by Armstrong Gibbs: From Nostalgia to Christian Hope and the Assurance of Heaven,” combines Richardson’s baritone performance of five songs with lectures based on his doctoral dissertation research. But Richardson had to go beyond mere performer and researcher to bring this music to the public – he had to become a sleuth, as a portion of Gibbs’ compositions are considered lost to history.

“His music is equally sophisticated and approachable. It has one foot in the Romantic, 19th-century past and another in his 20th-century present,” Richardson said.

Gibbs is best known for his earlier works, composed between 1917 and the 1930s. But Richardson was “equally smitten by his middle and late career,” including selections that the composer wrote in the 1940s, following his son’s death on the front lines of World War II. Richardson re-discovered two of those pieces, which he will perform.

“I tracked down ‘Before Sleeping’ and ‘Quiet Conscience’ by following the career of the late baritone Keith Falkner, Gibbs’ close family friend, for whom they were written. In 1950, Falkner left his career in England to begin and develop the voice department at Cornell University, where these now-archived manuscripts remain,” Richardson said. “You could hear my shouts of jubilation from my EMU studio when I finally got a look at these manuscripts – a kind librarian sent me a photograph.”

Those two pieces, permeated with both grief and Christian hope, diverge from many of Gibbs’ other compositions, which center more around themes of beauty, approachability, and down-to-earth sensibilities.

“I think both songs help tell a lesser known part of Gibb’s story and music. Here he is at his most vulnerable, and yet he finds hope in a Savior who similarly suffered,” Richardson explained. “Gibbs’ music is more than magical, nostalgic fairylands and bucolic landscapes. Even those songs, in a way, confront ugly realities. But that tension is most obvious with these songs; yet they still aspire to beauty.”

This discovery was all the more meaningful because Richardson has been in correspondence with Gibbs’ adult grandchildren who live in the U.K. His research has also connected archives of compositions, letters, and memoirs that were previously siloed at the Britten-Pears archive in Aldeburgh, England; the Dorothy Sayers archive at Wheaton College, and Cornell University.

“It’s exciting to connect with notable authors, librarians, and the composer’s family who are spread far and wide!” Richardson said.


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