Ruth Gipps: Symphony No.4


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. 


The Music

Gipps’ Fourth Symphony was composed later in her career in 1972. Firmly rooted in a conservative English style, the Fourth Symphony was inspired by similar stylings from the likes of Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Along with her Second Symphony, the Fourth is one of Gipps’ most performed symphonic works. The symphony is structured into four movements. 


Movement I – Moderato – Allegro molto

The slow and quiet opening showcases a lyrical clarinet solo that is accompanied by the woodwind section. As the cellos enter with a counter melody, the texture begins to get richer. The bold horns take over the solo, now accompanied chiefly by the brass section and lower strings. Gipps’ subtle use of dissonance here creates colour within the harmony, whilst still writing wholly accessible music. After this slow introduction comes to a close, driving upper strings bring forward the next theme. As the pace picks up, Gipps makes full use of the orchestra, with percussion accentuating the driving force and the muted brass adding timbral colour to the mix. 

One of the charming aspects of this movement is the constant change of character between the fiery driven theme and the quieter, more reserved theme. These changes bring drama and light and shade to the music which keeps the listener interested at all times. After a number of similar twists and turns, the first movement begins to wind down both in terms of texture and dynamics, which leads to the quiet conclusion of the opening movement. 


Movement II – Adagio

The quiet second movement opens with a cor anglais solo, accompanied by the woodwind and muted brass. Similarly to the first movement, Gipps uses the woodwind to present the theme in the first instance. A solo violin takes over the melody, which is accompanied initially by a solo harp. There is a delicate nature to this movement with the composer using soloists within the orchestra to develop the main theme. A bold brass chorale raises the dynamic before the strings take over once more. A final orchestral climax leads to the solo violin playing the theme once more before this movement also ends quietly.


Movement III – Scherzo

The playful third movement is started with a repeated phrase by the upper strings. A solo horn plays on top which gives the listener the first notion of the theme. A solo violin then takes this over before the spotlight goes on the racing accompaniment. These rushing phrases are passed around the orchestra, which shows Gipps’ attention to detail on her orchestration. A more ominous central section takes hold, which is led by woodwind soloists. The racing theme returns with the solo horn reprising its opening theme. As the texture becomes very dense, the third movement concludes with a huge brass chord. 


Movement IV – Finale 

Opening with a slow introduction led by a solo oboe, the finale movement once again explores the different timbres within the orchestra. As more voices join the mix and the texture becomes richer the orchestra plunge into the ‘Allegro molto’ section. Racing strings act as the driving force here with the woodwind and brass adding decoration and a foundation to the theme. Similarly to the opening movement, the finale moves between characters quickly and slow lyrical sections are intertwined with the bold and fully-orchestrated ones. As the coda section unfolds the tempo really picks up. Fizzing strings that are full of energy and joy unite with the woodwind and brass to create a truly exciting final few pages of music. The bombastic percussion supports a bold brass fanfare before the symphony concludes triumphantly. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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