Ruth Gipps: Horn Concerto
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.
Composed in 1968 for Gipps’ son Lance Baker when he was a young professional, her Horn Concerto was formally premiered by Baker a year later in 1969. For the premiere, Gipps herself conducted the London Repertoire Orchestra in Duke’s Hall at the Royal College of Music. The concerto has only been professionally recorded once, in the 1990s by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with David Pyatt as the soloist. The piece is known for being a very difficult work for the horn, not only for its technical complexities, but also the huge range of the soloist and the stamina required to perform the work.
The mystical opening provides a strong foundation for the soloist to sit on. The long lyrical lines paired with the big jumps in range creates quite the spectacle for the listener. Gipps’ handling of textures creates swirls of orchestral sound that engages in call and response figures with the soloist. As the woodwind and soloist intertwine, the strings build in texture and dynamic, creating a more solid foundation for the soloist. During the developmental central section the horn part becomes more virtuosic, with quick tonguing and fast fingering plaguing the part. There is an amount of sensitivity throughout this opening movement which seeps through the soloist and into the orchestra. After a cadenza near the end, the powerful first movement concludes on a quiet, resolved chord.
The scherzo second movement opens with an intricate theme from the woodwind which is soon passed onto the soloist. The playfulness of this movement creates great movement within the orchestra. Gipps’ bold use of dynamic changes creates light and shade within the music, which is accentuated by the use of percussion in places. A lyrical middle section shows the beauty of the horn as it soars above the orchestra. As the opening returns once more as the tempo picks up, the movement begins to grow in intensity. The movement concludes with some very high and very low quiet notes from the soloist.
The finale movement starts quickly with the woodwind leading the theme. The horn enters with the theme and immediately begins to develop it to make it more virtuosic. The movement between lyrical statements and more playful themes creates a very interesting narrative in this finale. The soloist is certainly tested during this final movement as Gipps writes many twists and turns for them. The mystical theme from the opening movement rears its head near the end of the movement as the tuned percussion accompanies. The final minute of the concerto is bold and leads to the big climax led by the soloist. Quick tonguing from the soloist leads to the last top note before the orchestra flourish to finish this thrilling concerto.
Ⓒ Alex Burns