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Ruth Gipps

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Ruth Gipps


Ruth Dorothy Louisa Gipps MBE (20 February 1921, Bexhill-on-Sea, England – 23 February 1999, Sussex, England) was an English composer, oboist, pianist, conductor, and educator.

Gipps was a child prodigy, winning performance competitions in which she was considerably younger than the rest of the field. After performing her first composition at the age of 8 in one of the numerous music festivals she entered, the work was bought by a publishing house for a guinea and a half. Winning a concerto competition with the Hastings Municipal Orchestra began her performance career in earnest.

In 1937 Gipps entered the Royal College of Music, where she studied oboe with Léon Goossens, piano with Arthur Alexander and composition with Gordon Jacob, and later with Ralph Vaughan Williams. Several of her works were first performed there. Continuing her studies at Durham University led her to meet her future husband, clarinettist Robert Baker. At age 26, for her work, The Cat, she became the youngest British woman to receive a doctorate in music.

She was an accomplished all-round musician, as a soloist on both oboe and piano as well as a prolific composer. Her repertoire included works such as Arthur Bliss's Piano Concerto and Constant Lambert's The Rio Grande. When she was 33 a shoulder injury ended her performance career, and she decided to focus her energies on conducting and composition. An early success came when Sir Henry Wood conducted her tone poem Knight in Armour at the Last Night of the Proms in 1942. Gipps' music is marked by a skillful use of instrumental colour, and often shows the influence of Vaughan Williams, rejecting the trends in avant-garde modern music such as serialism and twelve-tone music. She considered her orchestral works, her five symphonies in particular, as her greatest works. Two substantial piano concertos were also produced.

After the war, Gipps turned her attention to chamber music, and in 1956 she won the Cobbett Prize of the Society of Women Musicians for her Clarinet Sonata, Op. 45. In March 1945, she performed Glazunov's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the City of Birmingham Orchestra as a piano soloist while also, in the same program, performing in her own Symphony No. 1 on cor anglais under the baton of George Weldon.

Her early career was affected strongly by discrimination against women in the male-dominated ranks of music (and particularly composition), by professors and judges as well as the world of music criticism. Because of it she developed a tough personality that many found off-putting, and a fierce determination to prove herself through her work.

Ruth Gipps managed to ably blaze her own trail through the fraught professional music scene of mid-century post-war England. Amidst a cohort of composers drawn to folk melodies and their comforting promise of simpler times, Gipps wrote against the modernist grain of academics in a mostly tonal, conservative style. She spoke out passionately against what she saw as unpalatable, anti-audience music and was unafraid to make enemies as she did so. Her bristly public personality coupled with societal biases against her working as a woman composer and conductor prevented any widespread fame for Gipps. However, through the formation and direction of her own ensembles, she was able to create conducting work and provide a platform for her compositions through the latter half of the century. With little help from the powers-that-be, Gipps pioneered as a woman in her fields and left a worthy legacy of pieces still under-explored today.

She founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in 1955 as an opportunity for young professional musicians to become exposed to a wide range of music. In 1957 she conducted the Pro Arte Orchestra. She later founded the Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961, a professional ensemble which included a work by a living composer in each of its programs, often a premiere performance. Later she would take faculty posts at Trinity College, London (1959 to 1966), the Royal College of Music (1967 to 1977), and then Kingston Polytechnic at Gypsy Hill. In 1967 she was appointed chairwoman of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain.

Gipps was one of the most prolific composers in Britain at the time of her death, having written five symphonies, seven concerti, and numerous chamber and choral works. She founded both the London Repertoire Orchestra and the Chanticleer Orchestra and served as conductor and music director for the City of Birmingham Choir. Later in her life she served as chairwoman of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain.

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