Exploring Ruth Gipps’s Cringlemire Gardens - Impression for string orchestra
by John France
My recent discovery was Ruth Gipps’s Cringlemire Gardens, Impression for string orchestra, Op. 39. This short work in a pastoral idiom has a considerable depth and a surprising power of evoking a particular landscape. My essay attempts to put the work in context, report on its premiere, and put forward a paradigm for listening.
Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) had not been too busy composing in the early 1950s. The present piece was one of two offerings in 1952; the other was Virgin Mountain, ballet music for orchestra, Op. 38. The previous year saw only The Song of Narcissus (from 1001 Nights) for soprano and piano, Op. 37, which remained unperformed until 1986. In 1950, Gipps produced a massive opus, the one-hour oratorio The Prophet, Op. 35, setting texts by Kahil Gibran and others. It had been commissioned for the BBC Third Programme but was never performed there, and no payment was received. More successful was Gipps’s Conversation for two pianos, Op. 36. It was first played at the Wigmore Hall on 3 January 1951 by Ruth’s mother Hélène Gipps and Mary Mollison. In 1953, Gipps completed Goblin Market for two sopranos, women’s voices and orchestra, Op. 40. This setting of Christina Rossetti’s well-loved poem had to wait three years for a premiere in Newcastle-under-Lyme on 9 February 1956. Another 1953 work was the Coronation Procession, Op. 41. It was first performed in Melbourne on 27 September 1954, more than a year after the event (Halstead, 2006, pp. 170 ff).
(see photo of Summerhouse) are located about a mile west of Langdale Chase near Troutbeck, in the Lake District. Architect Dan Gibson built Cringlemire in the 1890s for Henry Martin. The
Old Cumbria Gazetteer notes: “The gardens were consciously designed as an arboricultural museum by Thomas H Mawson, Robert Mawson and Dan Gibson, and were sheltered by conifers; Mr Martin was a noted plant collector.” The summer house, pictured above, was illustrated by Mawson (1912, p. 151).
Cringlemire Garden, subtitled “Impression for string orchestra”, lasts only a little more than six minutes, but it is a full-blown tone poem. It evokes the thoughts of someone sitting in the garden surrounded by the romantic landscape of the Lake District. Further research is needed on Ruth Gipps’s travels to Cumbria.
The inspiration for many of Gipps’s compositions was usually the South-East of England (Halstead, 2006, p.105). Consider the Sea-Shore Suite, Op. 3b, for oboe and piano (1939) and the Wealden Suite, Op. 76, for four clarinets (1991) – both these pieces cry out for rediscovery. Halstead writes that Gipps had a “passion for a simpler way of life, close to nature… [her] inspiration came from the small and mundane details of her environment”. In her music, “landscapes are miniaturized and tamed, resulting in a large number of evocative pieces based on the everyday, often un-regarded aspects of the English landscape” (Halstead, op. cit.). Examples include Rowan for flute and piano, Op. 12a (1940), the Sea-Weed Song for cor anglais and piano, Op. 12c (1940), The Pony Cart for flute, horn and piano, Op. 75 (1990), and Cool Running Water for bass flute and piano, Op. 77 (1991).
Cringlemire Gardens has two sections. The first, an Andante, begins thoughtfully. In his
booklet notes for the CPO disc I discuss below, Lewis Foreman writes: “cello and viola muse on a phrase reminiscent of an English folk song, probably ‘The Raggle Taggle Gipsies O’”. This part is written in the relatively unusual time signature of 5/4. It is reflective music, with just the hint of passion. At the halfway point, the mood and pace of the music suddenly change into something not necessarily light-hearted but certainly more animated. This sense of movement is underpinned by the 7/8 time signature. Rich and intense string chords lead towards a reprise of the opening theme. The solo cello and muted viola restore a sense of calm and repose. There is a little pizzicato on the cello, and a quiet chord played by the strings brings this Impression to a peaceful conclusion.
It is no surprise that the arboretum at Cringlemire appealed to Gipps: sitting in the summer house must have been a magical treat. It would be fascinating to find out if she were a guest there, or simply a visitor.
Halstead (2006, p. 171) notes the premiere performance of Cringlemire Gardens at the Birmingham Town Hall on 20 February 1952. The composer conducted the New Midland Orchestra.
In a piece announcing the concert, John Thorpe (Birmingham Gazette, 14 January 1952, p. 4) reported that a “work which helped to make Dr Ruth Gipps of Birmingham one of Britain’s youngest doctors of music is to be heard in its entirety for the first time”. This refers to The Cat, Op. 32, completed in 1947. Scored for contralto and baritone soli, double chorus and orchestra, the piece is a setting of texts drawn from the apocryphal Gospel of the Holy Twelve, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Michael Joseph and Christopher Smart. The Cat was accepted by Durham University, and Gipps was awarded D.Mus. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under George Weldon performed the Overture of this work on 14 October 1948 at the Birmingham Town Hall.
The Stage (6 March 1952, p. 12) wrote: “[…] all but two of the items played at the [20th February] concert were unfamiliar […] it was thoughtful of Dr Gipps to arrange her programme so that the listener could trace her development from her early twenties, with such items as the symphonic sketch Death on the Pale Horse [Op. 25 (1943)] and her Violin Concerto [in B flat, Op. 24 (1943)] through to the full-scale choral work The Cat”. The critic thought that her earlier works “lack a rhythmic vitality and are not melodically memorable”, but there is considerable development of these qualities in The Cat and “in the more recent Cringlemire Garden, an ‘impression’ for strings, a free ternary form is used to produce effective melodic and rhythmic contrast”.
The review in the Birmingham Gazette (21 February 1952, p. 4) did not mention Cringlemire Gardens but gave an overall impression of the concert. R.R. wrote that the “progress” of Gipps’s compositions “shows a marked firmness in the handling of orchestral writing which is always lucid and informed by authority”. On the other hand, “[where] Dr Gipps fails the listener most is in melodic invention” and “too many of her ideas lack that memorable quality by which new music imprints itself on the mind”. The playing was successful, done with “sincerity and artistry”, but the New Midland Orchestra suffered by “being underweight in strings”.
The CPO label has issued Ruth Gipps’s Cringlemire Garden on the disc British Music for Strings III (555457-2). Douglas Bostock conducts the West German Chamber Orchestra Pforzheim. This remarkable programme also includes Dame Ethel Smyth’s Suite for strings, Op. 1a (1883/1890), Susan Spain-Dunk’s Suite for string orchestra (1920) and her Lament (1934), and Constance Warren’s Heather Hill (c.1930). So far, in early January 2022, there have been no reviews. The recording of Cringlemire Gardens can be heard on
Halstead, Jill (2006). Ruth Gipps: Anti-Modernism, Nationalism and Difference in English Music. Aldershot, Ashgate.
Mawson, Thomas H. (1912). The Art & Craft of Garden Making. B. T. Batsford, London, 4th ed.