Ruth Gipps: Rhapsody for Clarinet and String Quartet
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.
Composed in 1942, Gipps’ Rhapsody for Clarinet and String Quartet is one of her best-loved chamber works for clarinet. Set out into one extended movement, this rich work is full of harmonic and melodic delights.
Opening with a suspended chain of chords from the quartet, the clarinet grows into a quintessentially British pastoral theme. The violin mimics the clarinet as the two intertwine above the rich accompaniment below. Gipps’ style creates thick tutti swells as all five voices get up close and personal with each other. The melodies presented leak into one another, creating a chain of glorious melodies.
The mood of the rhapsody does change throughout, although it’s not ever a massive change, just small subtle tweaks to the tempo. The more spritely central section is largely led by the quartet, who dance around Gipps’ frivolous melody. The clarinet joins, with the quartet resorting to a playful pizzicato accompaniment. There is a joyfulness to this music, with the bouncing melody being passed around the voices seamlessly.
A small violin and clarinet interlude stops the melody in its tracks and takes the music back to the opening theme. The feeling of relief upon hearing this friendly melody is welcome, with the clarinet soon exploring more possibilities of the theme. The huge swells across the ensemble are luscious and laden with interesting harmonies.
The more joyful theme returns in a slightly different form, although the energy remains unchanged. Gipps’ rich writing takes us on quite the journey towards the end of the rhapsody, with many themes returning, offering the clarinet a short cadenza opportunity. Rhapsody for Clarinet and String Quartet concludes with the solo clarinet playing the final theme and ending on a rich and woody low note.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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