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Ruth Gipps and Sir Arthur Bliss

by Pamela Blevins

Although I never met Ruth Gipps personally, I was privileged to correspond with her throughout 1996. We enjoyed our exchanges, sometimes two or three a month, and I think we both felt that we had found a new friend. Our ‘conversations’ ranged from music to cats to films to daily happenings in our lives. They ended abruptly when Ruth suffered a major stroke in January 1997 that led to her death in 1999.

I first became aware of Ruth or ‘Wid’, as she preferred to be called, when sometime around 1987, a friend in England sent me a tape of a 1983 BBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast performance of her Symphony No. 4, (1972), dedicated to Sir Arthur Bliss. We were both so impressed by it that my friend wrote directly to Ruth. She was gracious and pleased that we were so excited about her music and sent more tapes. It was a bit like Christmas for us.

This was not to be the end of my contact with her. During the mid-1990s, I was the editor of a magazine about women in classical music, The Maud Powell Signature, published by the Maud Powell Society for Music and Education in the United States. I wanted to feature Ruth Gipps in one of our issues and commissioned Margaret Campbell to write the piece. Ruth and I began our correspondence then. Over the months I was to learn about her remarkable career and the extent of her commitment to music and the pride she felt over Sir Arthur’s response to her fourth symphony. More about the symphony later but first a brief introduction to Ruth Gipps.

Ruth Gipps, composer, conductor, pianist, oboist, was born on 20 February 1921, at the Bexhill School of Music, where her mother, a pianist, was founder/principal. Her father had studied the violin and both of Ruth’s older siblings, Laura and Bryan, were also to become musicians. Ruth showed precocious musical gifts from an early age and was able to play almost perfectly the music she heard her mother’s students play during lessons. At the age of four, Ruth performed Grieg’s Waltz in A minor in London. By the time she was eight one of her compositions, The Fairy Shoemaker, was published by Forsyth after it won an award at the Brighton Festival.

At the age of ten, she made her debut as a pianist playing Haydn’s D major concerto with the Hastings Municipal Orchestra conducted by Julius Harrison. From then on, Ruth regularly performed piano concertos with municipal orchestras. At fifteen, she passed the Oxford School Certificate and ARCM (in piano performance) and entered the Royal College of Music. She studied with Kendall Taylor, R. O. Morris, Gordon Jacob, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leon Goossens, and won five composition prizes, a Caird Travelling Scholarship, and Cobbett Prize for her string quartet ‘Sabrina’. She completed her Bachelor of music at Durham at the age of twenty. In 1941, Sir Henry Wood conducted her orchestral work, Knight in Armour at the Last Night of the Proms.

In March 1942, she married clarinetist Robert Baker, then a cypher officer in the RAF who was serving away from home in the Orkney Islands. Their son Lance (a horn player and composer) was born in 1947. During the early years of her career, Ruth appeared as a concert pianist, but supplemented her income by playing the oboe and cor anglais in orchestras.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under George Weldon gave twelve performances of her orchestral works. At the age of twenty-six, she was the second youngest to earn the degree of Doctor of Music at Durham, the youngest being Malcolm Sargent. She was such a versatile musician that in one 1945 concert, she appeared as the soloist in Glazounov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and later in the program played the cor anglais in the premiere of her own Symphony No. 1 in F minor. Ruth launched her conducting career as chorus master of the City of Birmingham Choir.

From 1955 to 1986, she focussed her energies largely on conducting the two orchestras she formed, the London Repertoire Orchestra and the London Chanticleer Orchestra. During her holiday breaks, she composed large-scale orchestral works including five symphonies, several concertos, choral works, orchestral pieces and chamber music. She held a professorship in harmony and counterpoint at Trinity College (1959-66) and taught the Bachelor of Music syllabus at the Royal College of Music for ten years after Trinity. She became a principal lecturer at Kingston Polytechnic. A highly respected teacher, she encouraged and nurtured the careers of Julian Lloyd Webber and Alexander Baillie among others. After she retired in 1986, she learned to play the organ and served for seven years as a village church organist. In 1981, she was appointed MBE for her services to music.

Ruth Gipps followed the path to large scale musical forms opened to women composers by the pioneering Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) and widened by those of a later generation who followed her including Elizabeth Maconchy, Grace Williams, Dorothy Howell and Phyllis Tate.

Ruth had composed her first symphony in 1942 at the age of twenty-one. It won the RCM’s Grade V composition prize and was premiered by the City of Birmingham Orchestra under George Weldon in 1945. Her Symphony No. 2 in one movement, begun in Cornwall in 1945, had its premiere with the CBO in 1946. The second symphony is the only one of her five symphonies available to date on a commercial recording.(1)

Twenty years passed before the appearance of Ruth’s third symphony premiered in 1966 under her own direction in a performance by the London Repertoire Orchestra. In the interval between symphonies she had turned her attention to choral works, including her cantata Goblin Market, her concerto for violin and viola and her horn concerto, written for her son Lance Baker. Symphony No. 3 was broadcast on BBC Radio in 1969 with Ruth conducting the BBC Scottish Orchestra.

Ruth’s Symphony No. 4, dedicated to Sir Arthur Bliss, dates from 1972 and is, according to Margaret Campbell, ‘a masterpiece by anyone’s standard’.(2) The four movement work, requiring a large orchestra, is lyrical, expansive and full of vibrant colourful rhythm. Sir Arthur was honoured by her dedication and truly admired the symphony.

‘You have given me a splendid work, so varied and inventive,’ he wrote to her on 29 May 1973 after the premiere the previous night with Ruth conducting her London Repertoire Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall. ‘I am sure that no critic, who did not have the good fortune that I had, to follow its progress in the full score, could rightly judge your achievement. It is a big work, and full of fascinating detail...You were aware, I am sure, of the impact that this work made, as you conducted it,’ he continued.(3)

When Ruth offered the dedication to Sir Arthur, she sent him a copy of the score. He was impressed and came to know the music intimately. In a letter written on 16 December 1972, he reported to Ruth that he had ‘ "conducted" through the symphony with great excitement. It is a finely vigorous and stimulating work even on first acquaintance.’ He was particularly impressed by the first movement, Moderato: Allegro Molto, which he declared was ‘beautifully shaped’ and closed his letter by telling Ruth, ‘I want you to know how proud I am of it.’(4)

In subsequent correspondence Sir Arthur revealed his growing respect for the symphony and found much to praise in Ruth’s ‘splendid command of orchestral possibilities’ and the beauty of the work, particularly the ending of the second movement. He offered some suggestions: ‘This lovely swaying opening should be metronomed.’ (First movement) ‘I think you should indicate what beat you want...in the fugue.’ (First movement). ‘Is there too much percussion...?’ (in a part of the third movement). In the same movement he comments on the ‘ravishing’ sound and adds ‘I wish I had thought of this!’(5) In a postscript to his comments he assured her that he would not be offended if she chose not to act on his suggestions. Ruth Gipps was a mature, self-assured artist who understood the value of Sir Arthur’s comments and accepted them. If she disagreed she explained why and Sir Arthur understood. Nothing was heard of the fourth symphony again until 3 May 1983, when John Pritchard conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a broadcast performance. To the best of my knowledge, it has not been performed since.

In 1983, Ruth Gipps added her fifth and final symphony to the list of her compositions which had grown to about one hundred works in all forms except opera. Despite ill-health (a bout with cancer successfully treated and a heart condition), Ruth continued to compose and lead an active intellectual life until her death on 23 February 1999.

Pamela Blevins

©2004

NOTES

1. Symphony No. 2 is available on Classico CLASSCD274, coupled with Arthur Butterworth’s Symphony No. 1, Douglas Bostock, Munich Symphony Orchestra.

2. Margaret Campbell, ‘Ruth Gipps: A Woman of Substance’, The Maud Powell Signature, Winter 1996, Volume 1, Number 3, p.33.

3. Arthur Bliss to Ruth Gipps, 29 May 1973. Copy given to author by Ruth Gipps. Original in Cambridge University Library as are all letters from Sir Arthur quoted in this article.

4. Arthur Bliss to Ruth Gipps, 16 December 1972.

5. Arthur Bliss to Ruth Gipps, Christmas Eve 1972.

For a more in-depth account of Ruth Gipps life, I recommend David Wright’s article.

The scores of Ruth Gipps music are available for study at The British Music Information Centre in London.

 

 



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