Ruth Gipps: Ambarvalia

Context

By the time of her death in 1999, Ruth Gipps had an incredible oeuvre of music to represent her career throughout the 20th century. She initially studied oboe with Léon Goossens, piano with Arthur Alexander and composition with Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams whilst she studied at the Royal College of Music during the late 1930s. Gipps continued her studies at Durham University, where she later became the youngest British woman to receive a doctorate in music. 

As well as a talented composer, Gipps was, in her early career, a successful soloist both on the oboe and on piano. Gipps also premiered Arthur Bliss’s Piano Concerto and Alexander Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No.1 during these years. 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. 

Although Gipps did find relative success with her music, her story was not an easy one to unfold. 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. It is said that because of this, Gipps developed a tough outer-skin which made her a fierce voice for women during this time. 

As a conductor, Gipps founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in the 1950s, which gave young musicians the opportunity to become accustomed to the world of classical music. She also conducted the Pro Arte Orchestra. Gipps later went on to found the Chanticleer Orchestra in the 1960s, which was a professional ensemble that always included a work by a living composer in each of its programmes. Gipps became the chairwoman of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain in 1967. A trailblazer for women in the arts during the 20th century, Ruth Gipps’ flame still shines bright today.

 

The Music

Receiving its first ever recording in 2019 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Gipps’ Ambarvalia is scored for a small orchestra. Composed in 1988, Ambarvalia hones in on some of Gipps’ more mature musical choices regarding texture, timbre and harmonic language. A quintessentially British-sounding orchestral work, Ambarvalia takes inspiration from other popular British composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax and Edward Elgar. 

Opening with a solemn string theme, the texture begins to grow and flourish with the support of the French horns. This warm pastoral sound is utilised and showcased throughout the whole piece. Small fragments of woodwind solo lines creep through the texture to add melodic development to the piece. A woodwind interlude leads to a new theme that the whole ensemble adopts and plays in unison. These powerful changes create a whirlwind of emotions for any listener. 

Warm in atmosphere and with no huge surprises along the way, Ambarvalia is a fantastic orchestral work that shows Gipps properly using all of the forces available to her. From the sparkling entry of the celeste during the central section, or the heavy reliance on the woodwind to keep the melodies moving along, the piece is a true showcase of Gipps’ best style. After some small orchestral swells, the dynamic drops during the final stretch of the piece to end Ambravalia with the poise and dignity that it deserves. 

 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

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