About this work
King James I of England recalled well the rough treatment the Scots had given his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, and himself as a boy; he resolved to journey to Scotland as king and force a better reception. The well-known trip James made in 1617 was the historical circumstance behind the composition of Orlando Gibbons' verse anthem Great King of Gods, and offers a rich context for the piece. Coming to Edinburgh in May of that year, King James had already made preparations for his advent; the chapel at Holyrood had been completely overhauled: in addition to a fresh choir, the Edinburgh chapel was furnished with a completely new "faire double Organ" by Thomas Dallam and Inigo Jones. After a suitable royal entry into the city, the King proceeded to visit Scottish churches and hear proper Anglican worship services in them, supported by Gibbons (his organist) and the Chapel Royal (his complete retinue for the visit was some 400 persons). It remains unknown exactly when during the visit Gibbons' Great King of Gods was performed, but a central contemporary manuscript specifically states, "This anthem was made for ye kings being in Scottland."
The musical substance of Great King of Gods seems quite appropriate to this august state visit. The piece is a "verse anthem" for five voices, from the hand of one of England's most prominent composers in that progressive genre. Four passages for solo voices, in the proper theological progression "Great King of Gods," "O word of God," "O Holy Ghost," and "One living Trinity," alternate with elaborations of each section for full choir. It seems most likely that the first singers to perform it were in fact the members of the reestablished choir at Holyrood itself. The manuscript copies of the anthem also contain supporting and untexted instrumental parts for the solo and soli sections. Whether they would have been played by a consort of viols or other instruments, or whether the parts are extracted from accompaniments for the new "faire double Organ," is difficult to establish, though the grander sound of the organ is more likely. Consort instrumentalists probably traveled with the King, however, and may very well have played along with Gibbons' companion piece, his "welcome song" for the king, Do not repine, fair sun.