Ruth Gipps: Song for Orchestra
By the time of her death in 1999, Ruth Gipps had an incredible oeuvre of music to represent her career throughout the 20th century. A pupil of Gordon Jacob, Arthur Alexander and Ralph Vaughan Williams whilst at the Royal College of Music, Gipps multitasked as an all-rounder during her life as a soloist, composer, conductor, lecturer and critic. After completing her PhD at Durham University, Gipps became the youngest British woman to receive a doctorate in music.
As well as a gifted composer, Gipps was a successful soloist both on the oboe and piano in her early career. After a shoulder injury in her early 30s, Gipps was forced to retire as a performer, and instead she focused on composing and conducting. Gipps’ music has been performed at the Last Night of the Proms, most notably in 1942 when Sir Henry Wood conducted her tone poem Knight in Armour. Although she regarded her symphonic works as her most treasured compositions, later in her career Gipps became very fond of chamber music. In 1956 she won the Cobbett Prize of the Society of Women Musicians for her Clarinet Sonata.
A truly selfless voice in a world of discrimination and difficulty, Gipps founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in the 1950s which gave young musicians performance opportunities. She also founded the Chanticleer Orchestra, which commissioned new works in every programme. Gipps’ service to music and the support she gave to up and coming musicians is noteworthy, as for the most part she was never paid a fee and often ended up ‘paying it forward’. Her unrelenting spirit and determination helped so many, even when not many people helped her.
Although Gipps did find relative success with her music, her story was not an easy one. Throughout her career she was discriminated against for being a woman practising in a male-dominated area of the arts. Because of this Gipps was not always able to submit works for competitions, have her music performed or be taken seriously by her contemporaries or critics. It is said that because of this, Gipps developed a tough outer-skin which made her a fierce voice for women during this time.
Song for Orchestra was composed in 1948 and is a short tone poem for orchestra. Certainly taking some inspiration from her mentor Vaughan Williams, the pastoral opening that features a solo oboe is very much of his style. Although there are some distinct voices from some of Gipps’ peers and composers past, such as Jean Sibelius and Arthur Bliss, Song for Orchestra most importantly presents a strong personal voice from Gipps.
As the strings begin to layer into the texture the dynamics begin to rise. Small fragments of solos from the woodwind and horns add a sense of melodic development to the music. The strings act as a peaceful accompaniment, with them also being the driving force for the warm orchestral swells. Gipps’ colourful lyricism washes over the orchestra as the sweetness of the composer’s style takes hold.
A more climactic central section ensues after a lower woodwind interlude is heard. The lower brass make their entrance in this section, with the intensity of the music becoming much more prevalent. The brass leads into a vigorous clarinet solo that initiates a call and response figure between the two sections. It is here where we hear Gipps’ prowess over the orchestra really shining through as the development of the main theme comes full circle.
After the dramatic middle section, the dynamic lowers to a soft hush, and the texture thins out before the solo oboe returns one last time. The unaccompanied soloist leads Song for Orchestra to conclude quietly as the sound slowly fades into silence.
A trailblazer for women in the arts during the 20th century, Ruth Gipps’ flame still shines bright today.
Ⓒ Alex Burns