Gipps and Sir Arthur Bliss
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
No. 2 is available on Classico CLASSCD274,
coupled with Arthur Butterworth’s Symphony
No. 1, Douglas Bostock, Munich Symphony
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
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
The scores of
Ruth Gipps music are available for study
at The British Music Information Centre