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Gipps, Ruth

| G-ipps |

Prodigiously gifted and fearlessly determined, Ruth Gipps’s significant impact on British music is still to be fully appreciated, argues Leah Broad

Who is Ruth Gipps?

Who is Ruth Gipps?

Ruth Gipps is one of Britain’s best composers, and in recognition of her work as a composer, conductor, pianist, oboist, orchestra founder and teacher. She was awarded an MBE in 1999.

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When faced with Ruth Gipps as a student, Sir Hugh Allen, the director of the Royal College of Music, declared that she ‘will go far because she is obstinate. She is damned obstinate!’ Allen’s assessment proved correct. She was indeed an ambitious, determined and uncompromising woman. Those who knew her found her difficult and stubborn, yet without these personality traits Gipps might never have become the figure she did, with multiple successful careers as a composer, conductor, pianist and oboist.

We included Ruth Gipps in our round-up of the best female composers in history.

When was Ruth Gipps born?

Ruth Gipps was born on 20 February 1921 in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, where her mother, Hélène, is founder and principal of the Bexhill School of Music.

When Ruth Gipps start composing?

Gipps (or ‘Wid’, as she preferred to be known) was a musical prodigy. Taught piano by her mother Hélène, she made her public debut as a pianist aged five, and had her first, prize-winning work published by the time she was eight. This short piano piece, The Fairy Shoemaker, caused some controversy as reviewers, sceptical that a young girl could have produced such an inventive piece, suggested that Hélène was the composer. But Gipps kept composing, and by the age of ten was playing her own solo works and appearing as a concerto soloist in her hometown of Bexhill-on-Sea. A concert poster from 1931 shows her holding a cat almost as large as herself – early signs of a lifelong penchant for both cats and eye-catching publicity images.

Because of her obvious talents, Gipps suffered some bullying. She hated school so much that her parents home-educated her through secondary school and let her focus on music. She entered the Royal College as a composition and piano student at age 15. Both her difficult school life and the press’s fascination about her youth marked her as an ‘outsider’ from a very young age, a badge that she would wear proudly and aggressively throughout her life.

Gipps was never afraid to speak her mind, not least about music she did and did not like. By the 1940s many composers were embracing modernism, and atonality was largely considered to be a natural progression for contemporary music. Yet even in the late-1980s, Gipps was declaring that she viewed ‘all so-called 12 tone music, so-called serial music, so-called electronic music and so-called avant-garde music as utter rubbish and indeed a deliberate conning of the public’.

We named Ruth Gipps as one of the best English composers of all time.

What style of music did Ruth Gipps write?

Gipps’s music is characterful, playful and unashamedly Romantic. She saw her work as ‘a follow-on’ from composers including Vaughan Williams (her tutor at the College), Bliss, Walton, Bax and Bridge. Their influence can clearly be heard in her large orchestral works, especially her five symphonies. She claimed that her music was ‘obviously and incurably English,’ a quality that to her was extremely important. To Gipps, this meant adopting a pastoral style, drawing on English folk tunes and historical English composers such as Byrd, and taking inspiration from the English countryside. She composed a plethora of works with evocative titles that root them in rural England. Flax and Charlock (1941), Cringlemire Garden (1952) and Ambarvalia (1988) evoke pastoral idylls, while Sea-Shore Suite (1939), Sea-Weed Song (1940) and Seascape (1958) conjure up the smell of the sea.

Her style also has a strong cinematic element. In her early career, she wrote a substantial number of incidental scores for BBC radio which showed a flair for the dramatic. Sadly, she took a dim view of this work. As far as she was concerned, writing incidental music was beneath her, and she swiftly moved away from scoring plays. But the theatricality stayed, and works like the Piano Concerto compare well with pieces by film composer colleagues such as Doreen Carwithen. Had she chosen to pursue this route, she might well have found a welcoming home for her tonal music at the cinema.

Gipps’s refusal to embrace modernism impacted on her reception as a composer both during  and beyond her lifetime. She was far from the only composer of her generation whose work, having been pushed out of the limelight by the widespread ascendency of modernism, is only now starting to be appreciated anew.

Ruth Gipps and the English Pastoral

Gipps viewed her music as ‘English’. Both she and her reviewers positioned herself as a successor to Vaughan Williams, one critic saying that in her best work ‘she can achieve the lyrical intensity of The Lark Ascending.’ She often drew on English folk music and set texts by English poets.

Ruth Gipps and Romanticism

As well as the English school, Gipps’s music is also heavily influenced by composers like Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Rimsky-Korsakov. She wanted her music to be accessible and enjoyable for a wide audience, and tried to bring the emotional immediacy of the Romantic music that she loved to her own work.

Ruth Gipps and Anti-modernism

In a period where most were experimenting with modernism, Gipps was adamantly against it. Her music is full of dissonant and unexpected harmonies, but she never moved away from tonality, and had no time for electronic music. She worked instead with long melodies and lush orchestrations.

Ruth Gipps and Religion

Gipps was deeply religious. She saw herself as a vessel through which divinely given music moved, believing that ‘from one God comes music and all musical gifts’. Many of her works deal with spirituality in some form.

Did Ruth Gipps suffer gender prejudice?

However, her gender was also a factor which impacted the way others viewed her work. Despite the many women composers working in 20th-century Britain, the press frequently portrayed them as anomalies. Gipps repeatedly had to face headlines that labelled her a ‘housewife composer’ (1946), alongside comments that dismissed her tonal style as evidence of ‘the natural conservatism of women’ (1960). Where the tonal music of Gipps’s male contemporaries such as William Alwyn was seen as a personal stylistic choice, similar music by women was framed as revealing something essential about women’s natures. Concerts featuring tonal music by women, The Daily Telegraph complained, were ‘as decorous as one always supposes a gathering of ladies to be’.

These kinds of prejudices left Gipps in a difficult position. Although she promoted music by women composers including Florence Price, Grace Williams and Elizabeth Maconchy by conducting their works, she yet so badly wanted to avoid the negative connotations that came with the ‘woman’ label that she often distanced herself from them. She portrayed herself as exceptional, as ‘one of the boys’. And in the process, she put down other women. Though she admitted she had experienced prejudice herself, she maintained that many claims about gender prejudice were ‘a bogey invented by women who were too afraid to take a chance’.

Nowhere did gender prejudice surface more acutely than when Gipps conducted, having to navigate what she called ‘a chorus of disapproval and hatred’ whenever she stepped out on the podium. But step out she did. Following the example of notable predecessors like Ethel Smyth, she achieved a number of ‘firsts’ as a woman conductor, including being the first woman to conduct at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957. The programme for this concert included her own cantata The Cat (a work which back in 1948 had secured her doctorate), and to the great astonishment of her reviewers, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. ‘A woman is no more expected to conduct it,’ wrote one critic, ‘than build a Great Boulder Dam.’ She followed this up by becoming the first woman to conduct her own symphony, the Third, for a BBC broadcast in 1969.

Which orchestras did Ruth Gipps set up?

When Gipps found doors closed to her, she created her own opportunities. She set up her own orchestras, first the London Repertoire Orchestra (LRO) and later the Chanticleer Orchestra, which allowed her to conduct the repertoire that she loved. The set-up of the LRO was characteristic of her thoughtful approach to musical performance. With her years of experience as an orchestral performer, she was familiar with the then-standard expectation that performers would be able to go from seeing a work to achieving broadcast proficiency with only one rehearsal. So she conceived the Repertoire Orchestra as a training ground for young musicians fresh from music college, aiming to expose them to as much standard repertoire as possible. Under her direction, they performed repertoire from Mendelssohn to Walton. Although Gipps admitted ‘I hate teaching, I resent teaching, I despise teaching,’ she enjoyed working with young professionals, and through her orchestras helped launch the careers of exceptional performers such as cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and pianist Alison Baker.

What is Ruth Gipps’s legacy?

Gipps’s significance in English musical life has yet to be fully understood. For such a prolific composer, very little of her music has been published or recorded. Thanks to recent recording efforts, we can now hear her orchestral poem Knight in Armour that took the Last Night of the Proms by storm in 1942, and the beautiful Clarinet Concerto she composed for her husband, Robert Baker. But there’s still no recording of the First Symphony that critics called ‘bold and confident, striding with ease, sensitive and striking’. And then there’s her significant achievements as a teacher, performer, conductor, author and organiser. Gipps made such a significant impact on the landscape of English music that in 1981 she was awarded an MBE, yet she rarely makes it into reference books or histories.

It’s hard to fit either Ruth Gipps’s personality or career into one box. But in all her complexity and seeming contradictions, she embodies English musical life in the 20th century. It was messy, eclectic and full of fiery personalities who had their own vision for the way English music should be. Musicians like Gipps were the lifeblood of her era. They might have been thought reactionary in their lifetimes, but today their stories and glorious music are a breath of fresh air, rejuvenating our music books and concert halls.

When did Ruth Gipps die?

After taking retirement, she died aged 78 on 23 February 1999 in Eastbourne, the result of a battle against cancer and a stroke. She was survived by her husband, the clarinettist Robert Baker.

The best recordings of works by Ruth Gipps

Unfortunately, Ruth Gipps’s music is still awaiting the recordings it deserves – but there are a few instances in which her works have made their way onto disc. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s 2018 recording is standout, and will hopefully pave the way to other great interpretations.

Ruth Gipps: Symphonies Nos 2 & 4, Song for Orchestra, Knight in Armour
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba
Chandos CHAN 20078

‘The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Rumon Gamba give warm-hearted, energetic, well-paced accounts, and their oboist deserves a special accolade.’

Piano Concertos by Dora Bright and Ruth Gipps
Murray McLachlan, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Peebles
Somm SOMM0273

‘Ruth Gipps’s G minor Concerto seizes one immediately with her distinctive personality and powerful, determined voice – in the manner of Bax to some degree, but with significant added pepper.’

Reawakened
Gipps: Clarinet Concerto
Robert Plane (clarinet), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Champs Hill CHRCD160

‘The central lento, piquantly blending clarinet and oboe, is charmingly dispatched here.’

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Extracted quotes reproduced by permission of the Ruth Gipps Archive