Obituary: Ruth Gipps

Lewis Foreman
Wednesday 03 March 1999 01:02

THE COMPOSER, conductor and teacher Ruth Gipps said she had always found it "difficult to understand young people who don't know what they want to be when they grow up". For Gipps, from a young age, it was music.

At first manoeuvred by her mother into appearing as a child pianist, she entered the Royal College of Music in 1937, winning the Caird Scholarship. Here she developed both as a composer with Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob and as a pianist. Several contemporaries have remarked on her performance of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto while a student.

When Sir Henry Wood conducted Gipps's tone poem Knight in Armour at the last night of the 1943 Proms, he signalled the emergence of a talented new voice. Chamber works had already been heard at the Wigmore Hall, and no musician could have had a more rewarding concert when in Birmingham in March 1945 she was soloist in a Glazunov piano concerto and followed it by playing cor anglais in the first performance of her own First Symphony.

During the Second World War her life was focused on Birmingham, where, in 1942, she married the clarinettist Robert Baker. In 1944, while he was away on war service, she was a full-time orchestral musician (oboe/cor anglais) in the City of Birmingham Orchestra. During the 1940s Birmingham was an active centre of musical creativity as the conductor George Weldon encouraged local composers and played several big works by Gipps, including two symphonies, violin and piano concertos and various tone poems.

As an oboist she was a student of Leon Goossens and she caught the eye of Sir Malcolm Sargent, who asked her to play orchestral cor anglais solos in works such as The Swan of Tuonela. When her approachable one-movement Second Symphony was given by the Birmingham Orchestra in October 1946, she seemed to be securely launched as a composer, and it is sad that she did not live to see the revival of this work by the young English conductor Douglas Bostock, due out on CD in April.

Back in a London she "found a changed world". Sir Henry Wood was dead and no one wanted to look at scores of orchestral works, so she turned her attention to chamber music. In 1956 she won the Cobbett prize of the Society of Women Musicians for her Clarinet Sonata, Op 45, the slow movement of which was written at a sitting. "I heard it in my mind," she said "and wrote it down as fast as I could scribble."

Gipps developed a portfolio of activities including directing the City of Birmingham Choir, musical journalism and university extra-mural lecturing. Throughout her life Ruth Gipps was a byword for industry and no-nonsense integrity, and, encountering the feeling against women musicians evident in the 1940s and 1950s, she attempted to establish herself by industry and academic excellence, being awarded an external Durham BMus in 1941, and a doctorate in 1948 for which her composition exercise was her cantata The Cat, described by one conductor as "great fun, full of vitality".

Gipps's music, which is in most conventional forms except opera, was well received by audiences, but her idiom reflected her student days with Vaughan Williams. It was not forward-looking, even in 1945, and the post-war emergence of an iconoclastic new generation typified by Peter Racine Fricker, and later the establishment of serialism, meant that stylistic issues often stood in the way of objective critical assessment.

Gipps felt her best works were those for orchestra, a view confirmed by the BBC broadcast, in 1983, of her impressive Fourth Symphony under the baton of Sir John Pritchard. More recently she was able to attend the sessions when David Pyatt recorded her remarkable Horn Concerto, not yet issued. Those present who had not encountered her music before remarked on its personality and invention, wanting to hear more.

She could not understand the BBC's bureaucratic procedures for assessing new music submitted, and she fought a despairing and unsuccessful campaign to have her Fifth Symphony broadcast. She was no tactician and spoke her mind bluntly.

She was devoted to her students. First appointed to Trinity College of Music (1959-66) to teach composition and harmony, she moved to the Royal College of Music in 1967 where she filled the vacancy left by the retirement of her composition teacher Gordon Jacob. However, her uncompromising antagonism to avant-garde developments in the 1960s and 1970s became a limitation when she came to teach the London BMus.

Proud of her appointment as a professor of composition at, as she wrote, "my Alma Mater", she taught theory and history for a decade before leaving unhappily in the summer of 1977 to take up the appointment of Senior Lecturer in Music at Kingston Polytechnic, feeling that on the modern music issue at the RCM her "position had become impossible".

The London Repertoire Orchestra filled an enormous gap when she founded it in 1955. Here, every week on Wednesday (chamber ensemble) and Friday (full orchestra), she provided an opportunity of working through a huge span of repertoire, an activity she continued for 31 years.

The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber remembers her capacity to inspire. "Without people like her," he says, "a lot of us would not have had the necessary experience of the repertoire when we first entered the profession." He cites the "infectious enthusiasm" she brought to Elgar's Enigma Variations when on one occasion she came to conduct the RCM First Orchestra. With the LRO she also gave intending soloists like Lloyd Webber the opportunity to try through the concerto repertoire, and with him later gave the first London performance of the Bliss Cello Concerto.

The LRO was an example of Gipps's practical vision. Later she also founded the Chanticleer Orchestra. Her work for the music profession was wide and largely unsung. Typical was the establishment of the British Music Information Centre. While Chair of the Composers' Guild in 1967, with Elizabeth Yeomans she did all the donkey work which led to the successful launch of this invaluable institution, and it was not the least of her achievements.

A sports car enthusiast - she had first a 1935 MG, later a 1968 Morgan - Ruth Gipps thought nothing of driving, heavily swathed, through all weathers.

Ruth Dorothy Louisa Gipps, composer, conductor and teacher: born Bexhill- on-Sea, East Sussex 20 February 1921; MBE 1981; married 1942 Robert Baker (one son); died Eastbourne, East Sussex 23 February 1999.

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