Ruth Gipps Symphonies — Old Fashioned? Well-crafted!

The 21st Century seems to be the time for the re-discovery of women composers. Obscurity could result from many factors. Some careers were frustrated by societal conventions, as with Amy Beach. Sometimes race was the issue, as with Florence Price. In the case of Ruth Gipps, it seemed to have been something not uncommon with the fate of many male composers. Her music simply fell out of fashion.

Gipps was an extremely talented oboist, pianist, and composer. By all accounts, she was a virtual dynamo — performing, composing, and organizing. She founded the Londen Repertoire Orchestra (1955) and the Chanticler Orchestra (1961) to promote young performers and new music.

Yet her own music remained true to the ideals of the English Music Renaissance. She had studied with Ralph Vaughan Willams, and her work builds on the foundations he established. Gipps firmly rejected serialism and atonality. After WWII, her music was seen as simply too old-fashioned to be relevant.

Listening to Gipps’ work in the 21st Century, I didn’t hear that at all. Her Symphony No. 2 in B major (1945) is a tightly constructed single movement work. Her harmonies often resolve modally, accentuating the “Englishness” of her melodies.

Gipps dedicated her Fourth Symphony to Arthur Bliss. This 1972 work is still tonal, but the harmonies are more thickly textured. Gipps’ structural organization is impeccable, and her use of timbre and instrumental color inspired.

The symphony premiered the same year as George Crumb’s “Makrokosmos, Volume I,” Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music,” and Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus. So, yes, in context Gipps does sound old-fashioned.

But taken on its own merits, her music has the power to move the listener emotionally (it did for me). Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales seem fully invested in these works. Their performances bring out the restless vitality of Ruth Gipps and revel in her use of orchestral color.

Ruth Gipps: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Rumon Gamba, conductor
Chandos 20078

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