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A Celebration of Female Composers: Ruth Gipps

Updated: Jan 6

Welcome to our Celebration of Female Composers series!

Next up is Ruth Gipps, the picture of whom below wonderfully captures her personality. Gipps loved her little Morgan car and used to whizz around Sussex playing for services in three different churches.

Name: Ruth Dorothy Louisa Gipps

Born: 20 February 1921 in Bexhill-on-Sea, UK

Died: 23 February 1999 in Framfield, UK

What She Says:

“I am not giving up the piano. I’ve been playing in public since I was four!” – Gipps to RMC director Sir Hugh Allen, when told she must give up part of her studies if she wanted funding.

What They Say:

“Your daughter is damned obstinate, and because she is so damned obstinate we shall have to find some money for her.” – Director of RCM Sir Hugh Allen, to Ruth’s mother

A quick read of a few biographical articles or obituaries of Ruth Gipps all bring up a common theme: A rebel. Wilful. Determined. She seems to have made quite an impression on all those she came into contact with during her professional life, so naturally we wanted to know more.

Gipps features as the third composer on our programme in celebration of International Women’s Day on Saturday 9 March, along with Florence Price and Lili Boulanger, who we have already covered in this series. We will be performing the Horn Concerto, with Julia MacDonell as our soloist. The Horn Concerto was written for Gipps’ son, Lance, and used by him as an audition piece for many years.

Gipps was a musician not just in her way of life and professional career but in her very soul. She had piano lessons with her mother from the age of four, began performing publicly shortly after, and had her first composition, The Fairy Shoemaker, published when she was eight. From the time she had memories up until her death she lived and breathed music:

“I can't remember deciding to be a musician. One doesn't make decisions about plain necessities. I know that from one God comes music and all musical gifts. Some of us were composers from the beginning of our lives; we had no choice in the matter, only the life-long duty to make the most of a given talent. This talent may be large or small, but without it a person is not a composer."

Reading into her biography it would appear that her path as a musician was blocked at various turns. When she was fourteen she entered three times for the LRAM, and each time she was failed at the practical examination – by the same examiner. There is a definite consensus that this had nothing to do with her ability and everything to do with her age and gender. Not long after she successfully joined the Royal College of Music and spent the subsequent years of her studies working extremely hard and seizing every opportunity to learn as many aspects of musicianship as she could. She moved her studies to Durham University, where she met her future husband, a clarinettist by the name of Roger Baker.

A flare-up of a hand injury from her childhood later put paid to her career as a pianist, and Gipps focused on composition and conducting. She struggled to gain access to opportunities despite her training, experience and skill, at least in part to do with gender discrimination, but remained undaunted. In 1955 she founded the London Repertoire Orchestra and in 1961 she founded the Chanticleer Orchestra. Both of these orchestras gave rare opportunities to young new composers to have their work performed, and the Chanticleer Orchestra included work by a living composer in every programme. Gipps ran and maintained both of these orchestras while taking on faculty posts at RCM and Trinity, along with various other roles.

She composed steadily throughout her life, creating a huge body of work including five symphonies, a vast amount of chamber music and various types of choral works. Gipps rejected the trends of music that were emerging parallel to her own output, namely the avant-garde developments such as twelve-tone serialism. Instead her music is typically stirring and romantic with intricate and colourful instrumentation. There are echoes of Vaughan Williams throughout her work (was there ever an English composer of this era who wasn’t influenced by RVW?) but she certainly has her own unique sound. Have a listen to her Symphony No. 2, which is already notable for its non-standard format of either one long or eight very short movements (depending on how you look at it), the longest topping out at five and half minutes. Its triumphant, heroic opening section gives way to very different themes which melt into one another. The overall effect is like listening to an overture of ballet, or a medley from a film soundtrack. It is incredibly evocative and very much worth devoting twenty or so minutes of your time.

Gipps herself felt that her orchestral work was her greatest achievements.


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