Cibells and Cebells


A strange title appears in some English keyboard scores of the latter 17th century.  A number of pieces are titled “Cibell” or “Cebell,” or allude to that name in their title (as in Purcell’s “Trumpet tune, called the Cibell”).

Merriam-Webster defines it as a kind of gavotte, origin of the term “unknown.”

However, my score of William Croft (edited by Howard Ferguson and Christopher Hogwood) has a footnote.  It says that “cebell” pieces were written in emulation of a scene in Lully’s tragic opera Atys, 1676.  This opera had an “invocation of Cybele,” which was apparently so very popular that it spawned a mini-genre of emulation.

The “mini-genre” includes trumpet tunes and minuets; the obscure William Richardson has a “Jigg Sebell” in his A minor harpsichord suite. So what is distinctive about it?

The principal feature, it seems, is the unaccompanied bass interlude.  These pieces are odd and quickly recognized by the long left-hand solo lines…I suspect an off-putting feature for many a player today, bursting with Lore and eager to show off.

Another feature is a preference (save in the minuet) for the gavotte form:  four-four time and a two-beat upbeat.  What is not required is a quotation of the original tune!

Eventually, even the bass line became dispensible, and the cebell turned into a sort of gavotte.  John Walsh published The Division Flute, a collection for the flute (recorder), including ground basses, in 1706 and this collection includes a good number of cebells.  (There is even a cebell by “My Lord Byron,” leading one to wonder mightily about the George Gordon, Lord Byron’s musical ancestry.)  These pieces could be keyboard cebells reduced to the soprano line–removing the distinct bass feature but evoking the craze from late in the previous century.  In any case, they are more or less gavottes.

Fuller-Maitland published an anonymous “Cibell” (Contemporaries of Purcell, vol. 6) in what I suspect is a heavily edited and filled-in form;  suspiciously active bass lines have tame right-hand parts, which I rather think Mr. F-M provided.

The selection above, from the second edition of 1709, fills the bill and is surely the model for the cibell. It is Act I, Scene VIII.  The Chorus of Phrygians has just made their elegant entry, to not one but two dances.  (What a title for transcription:  Second Air of the Phrygians!)  Cybele enters and sings a splendid recitative, then the aria “Vous devez vous animer.” This aria has unaccompanied, or nearly unaccompanied, bass interludes.  It is also in the form of a gavotte.

It’s an exciting scene if presented well, in the grand conventionalist ritual of the French opera.

The only way to render this effect at the keyboard is to give the bass line alone, with no chording, in the interludes.  This way–though the original has figures–the effect is preserved.

Louis XIV is said to have loved this opera so well it came to be called “the king’s opera.” It’s a grim tragedy, ending with dead bodies onstage;  if the opening chorus weren’t the Twelve Hours of the Day and the Twelve Hours of the Night, frolicking in the Palace of Time– why, you’d think it was Puccini.

Students:  feel free to quote me, but please give me a footnote.

About Jonathan B. Hall

Keyboard artist, sacred musician, teacher, writer, working in New York City and State. Many interests include music theory and history, literature, astronomy, genealogy, philosophy and theology, gardening, and good food. Cat lover, too.
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