In Search Of Ruth Gipps

Uncovering the legacy of a fearsomely determined child prodigy turned composer and conductor.

Ruth Gipps. Shared with the permission of Lance Baker.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

On a concert poster from 1931 is a photograph of a young girl. She calmly smiles while holding a cat, a picture of domestic innocence. Below her run the words ‘CHILD PIANIST AND COMPOSER-AGE 10’. This musical prodigy will perform a Haydn concerto, alongside some of her own compositions.

The striking image features in Jill Halstead’s book Ruth Gipps: Anti-Modernism, Nationalism And Difference in English Music. Born in 1921, Gipps went on to become a concert pianist, composer, conductor, orchestral oboist, and music teacher, before her death in 1999.

Yet go in search of Ruth Gipps today, and you mostly find a legacy of absence. CD racks run seamlessly from Gershwin to Glass. Most of her compositions are not available on commercial recordings. Halstead’s excellent study, the outcome of scholarly research and her own correspondence with the composer, is seldom seen on bookshelves.

I first discovered Ruth Gipps (pronounced with a ‘hard’ G) while browsing a YouTube channel that features uploads of old broadcast recordings. Though the sound quality was far from perfect, the music immediately stood out: emotionally direct, memorably melodic, expertly crafted. I was amazed that I had not heard her name before.

From the very beginning gender forms a pattern of difference in Gipps’ story. Struggle for recognition in a man’s world is a main theme, but as Halstead’s book shows, the role that womanhood played in her life was also more nuanced and complicated.

Beside talent, one advantage that the young Gipps enjoyed was an ideal musical environment. Born into a family of musicians, her mother Hélène, a larger-than-life Swiss pianist, ran Bexhill School Of Music from their home. Perhaps equally important, she was also an unusually powerful female role model, the ‘undisputed head of the Gipps family’, and main financial provider.

By the age of two, Ruth insisted on being called ‘Widdy’ – later simply ‘Wid’ – a name that stuck for life. It was an early omen of a determined personality.

The young Gipps’ talents proved exceptional when she began piano lessons. Performing from the age of five, she astonished audiences. Music for her simply seemed to be a way of being:

I had known all along of course that playing piano was my job; the first concert merely confirmed it. But I also knew without a shadow of a doubt, although I had not yet written anything, that I was a composer. Not that I wanted to be a composer – that I was one.

And so it came to pass. At age eight, her piano piece The Fairy Shoemaker won competitions, and was even published. By ten she had a regular performing schedule in the south east of England, by fourteen she was composing a piano concerto.

Gipps’ journey into adulthood is littered with stellar achievements. Entering the Royal College of Music at sixteen, she took up the oboe as a second instrument, progressing from complete beginner to professional standard in only a few years. In composition, she won various College prizes, including for her first symphony. Her symphonic poem Knight In Armour was chosen by Sir Henry Wood for the last night of the Proms in 1942.

But the smile of the girl on the poster masked a less happy story. Hélène brought up her children with an unusual degree of independence, treating them as equals, which – alongside her extraordinary talents – meant the young Gipps had difficulties fitting in at school. Initially she was one of a handful of girls in a school of mostly boys, but found no solidarity there. ‘They made my life a misery’ she said, ‘in all the small ways known to little girls with an odd one among them’.

With the boys, however, she was much happier. Consequently, a later move to a girl’s school proved disastrous. The physical and emotional bullying – from staff as well as pupils – was so horrific that Gipps was eventually given permission to leave at age twelve. Such early isolation from her peers, Halstead writes, would go on to breed ‘a particular kind of self-sufficiency’ but with a high emotional cost, creating ‘a deep rooted sense of alienation and defensiveness’. Gipps’ self-defined outsider status would develop into a mentality that attack was the best form of defence.

Her arrival at the Royal College of Music was a chance for a fresh start. But while she was a provincial Wunderkind, Gipps discovered that her piano playing was no longer so exceptional here. Her self-esteem tied up in childhood adulation, this was a blow to confidence which, combined with a long-term hand injury, gradually drew her away from the path of a concert pianist.

Ruth Gipps at age 20. Shared with the permission of Lance Baker.

However the relationships she formed at this time were crucial. Gipps became engaged to the clarinettist Robert Baker at age 19, marrying him in 1942. As he was called up to the RAF for the war effort, they spent much of the first years of marriage apart. At the same time, a friendship with a young conductor called George Weldon proved pivotal. When he was appointed to the City of Birmingham Orchestra (later the CBSO), he secured her a full-time oboe position.

Furthermore, this friendship enabled Gipps to have the orchestra showcase her other talents, a chance she seized on with unapologetic enthusiasm. In one 1945 concert, she was both the soloist in Glazunov’s piano concerto and played the oboe in her own first symphony. This led to a perception of favouritism which began to ruffle feathers in the orchestra; their closeness aroused suspicion, with rumours that they were having an affair. While there is no indication that this was true, such was the growing hostility that Gipps was eventually forced out.

In 1947, while seven months pregnant with her son Lance, Gipps passed an exam for a doctorate in music, completing the degree with a cantata, The Cat, the following year. Around this time, Weldon recommended her for the job of chorus master to the City of Birmingham Choir. This involved rehearsing the choir for concerts, and she took to it with characteristic flair, discovering a love for conducting that would go on to define her career.

Seeing her clear abilities in this new role, and sensing her growing ambition, even the supportive Weldon began to feel uneasy, complaining that ‘one day you will want to conduct symphonies’. He seems to have summed up the conflicted attitudes to women conductors at the time, and Halstead’s analysis of the gender politics in this period, drawing on the work of the scholar Lucy Green, is particularly fascinating. ‘When conducting work stood within the parameters of ‘enabling’ it could be encouraged, as it seemed a natural extension of woman’s role as nurturer’. As a chorus master, or conductor of a youth orchestra, women could ‘enable’ some later musical goal, but a woman conducting professional concerts – embodying the ultimate authority on stage – was another matter.

Gipps was characteristically undeterred. But securing work would prove difficult. In 1955 she applied for an assistant role at BBC Midland, only to be told that a woman could not command the respect of the orchestra. ‘Any woman taking to the podium has to confront all these negative notions of feminine distractiveness’, Halstead writes, ‘while also negotiating a traditionally male space’. When conducting opportunities did come Gipps’ way, her approach in the early years could be provocative – where other women might have played down their femininity, she deliberately cultivated a stage persona with eye-catching dresses.

Gipps the conductor. Shared with permission of Lance Baker.

Gipps’ eventual solution was simple: she would set up her own ensemble. Having now moved back to London, the One Rehearsal Orchestra – later named the London Repertoire Orchestra – was designed to help musicians at the start of their careers to improve their sight-reading, addressing the common challenge of performing unfamiliar works at short notice. A very practical initiative, it was both an enabling role for musicians, but also for her – now she could finally conduct regularly. She led the orchestra for 31 years.

Further to this, when her husband came into an inheritance, Gipps was able to found the London Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961 – a  professional body that later received Arts Council funding and performed with up-and-coming soloists, including a young Julian Lloyd Webber.

But running her own orchestras would turn out to be both a blessing and a curse. While it allowed her complete control, it also increasingly isolated her from mainstream musical life. Gipps’ concerts received relatively little attention from the press. A sad and damning illustration of this came in the 1980s, when the music critic Keith Potter mused on the fact he had never seen a review of her work as conductor or composer:

A full examination of the implications of this would very likely lead to a survey of the whole way our cultural scheme of things operates in this country […] whatever one’s conclusions about all this, it did seem time […] that one of us actually went to one of Gipps’ concerts.

Gipps’ work in conducting, teaching and music administration meant that her rate of composition slowed down, but her musical outlook remained resolute. She saw her art as a continuation of an English tradition of Vaughan Williams, Bliss and Walton, and she fiercely opposed all forms of musical modernism, which she considered a ‘conning of the public’. Like many composers at this time, she fell the wrong side of the more progressive focus of William Glock, the influential Head of Music at the BBC from 1959, and her music suffered as a result. Her tirades against the BBC’s position and their enormous centralised power can hardly have helped. But through her own orchestras she performed a wide range of overlooked repertoire, including music by fellow women Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams.

Ruth Gipps discussing her symphony no. 4 with its dedicatee, Arthur Bliss. Shared with permission of Lance Baker.

Today, a stark injustice is simply that so little of her music is able to be heard. What has been recorded shows that, while the ingredients are familiar, there is a powerful imagination and distinctive personality at work. Listening to the magnificent and moving fourth symphony, it is hard not to conclude that a man who had written this score would have had a complete box-set of symphonies released by now. Currently, only the single-movement no.2 has a modern commercial recording – a woeful state of affairs. I will make a rare prediction: awards are waiting to be won for whichever label is shrewd enough to give this piece a new start in life.

Despite her often brash personality, Gipps was known to be enormously generous and helpful to other musicians, and was admired for her courage, energy and integrity. Yet as a figure forced to be defined by her gender, her views on the position of women can seem contradictory. She campaigned against the ‘sex bar’ that prevented married women from playing in many orchestras into the 1960s. She refused to let motherhood hold back her career – a stance admittedly aided by the class privileges of nannies and boarding school. And yet she held very conservative views on sex and marriage, and emphatically distanced herself from feminism. It is particularly interesting that she composed a cantata setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market – an erotically suggestive fairytale of two sisters and their temptation by fruit-selling goblins. ‘Well into old age’, Halstead recalls, ‘her need to discuss sexuality was palpable, leaving the impression that it remained an unceasing source of fascination and anxiety.’

Gipps in her Morgan sports car. Shared with permission of Lance Baker.

A consistent theme is that music, a steadfast force in her life, would always come first. Even so, one particularly startling fact stands out. Gipps freely admitted that she had only ever kissed her son once, and then by mistake. It occurred when he was a baby, and she momentarily thought that, like the little girl on the poster, she was holding her cat.

The thorny thickets of Gipps’ character seem to stand in contrast to the clarity, emotional appeal, and tenderness in her music. After her death in 1999, a poem was found among her belongings, typed on a scrap of paper. It speaks of a world-weariness, and a wish to be ‘Reincarnated in the sea / So deep that steamers passing by / Are fathoms over where I lie.’

The poems ends with an image of retreat unfamiliar to her gung-ho public persona: ‘A shell my homely habitation / A hermit crab my designation.’ Go in search of Ruth Gipps, and even when you find her, something hides away. Inevitably you are drawn back to that smiling prodigy, both applauded and bullied, gradually fencing herself in.

At age seven, Gipps would say, she learnt how to win respect from the boys at school. One day a boy pushed her to the floor, expecting her to cry. But she got back up, fists raised, ready to fight back. What sounds like a trivial account of a childhood horseplay has, Halstead notes, a kind of romantic symbolism of how she saw her life. Of how an extraordinary but isolated girl would compete in a world of men, aggressively navigating her own kind of Goblin Market.

‘I learnt that I, who was always the odd one out with girls, got on fine with boys’, Gipps said. ‘They very, very nearly accepted me as one of themselves’.

Ruth Gipps: Anti-Modernism, Nationalism and Difference in English Music can be ordered online from Routledge.

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