Ruth Gipps: Symphony no. 2

performed by the Munich Symphony Orchestra under Douglas Bostock

Ruth Dorothy Louisa Gipps was born on 20 February 1921 in Bexhill-on-Sea. She was a child prodigy, showing exceptional talents as a performer, winning competitions in which she was much younger than her fellow participants.

She entered the Royal College of Music at 16 years old, studying theory, composition, piano, and oboe, later moving to Durham, where she studied under Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob (who also studied with RVW), as well as her future husband Robert Baker. Unfortunately, a hand injury ended her performing career when she was only 33. Perhaps fortunately for us, though, she gave her time to a far more enduring contribution to music, her compositions. In total, she composed five symphonies, as well as concertos for oboe, horn, violin, piano, and even contrabassoon, as well as a significant body of chamber music. Surprisingly, for a pianist of her ability, she left very little actual solo piano music.

Her composing career aside, she (unsurprisingly) had difficulty as a woman in her field. She was not even considered for the post of conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, despite having some solid connections that would have made a male conductor a likely shoe-in for the position. As a result, Wikipedia says “she developed a tough personality that many found off-putting, and a fierce determination to prove herself through her work.”

But back to her composition. I can’t say much about her output aside from this work, but her second symphony is referenced in some places, including Wiki, as being a turning point in her career, where she begins to show her mature style. Wiki also says that “Gipps’ music is marked by a skilful 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.” It truly is an outstanding work, so I’m very glad I stumbled upon her name and came across this symphony, but more on that below.

It’s in one continuous movement, and basically one continuous outpouring of all the things that are amazing about good music. I’m a sucker for an unbroken piece of music with subdivisions that may or may not suggest the standard breakdown of multiple movements. I feel like this work is above the distinctions of separate movements, on a higher level of cohesion, and as you listen, you might have a revelation as to what some of these sections suggest.

Anyway, all those (probably overused) adjectives about compelling music (including compelling), like that it’s sentimental, tender, commanding, inspiring, moving, propulsive, memorable… this is all of that, and yet somehow crammed down into less than a half hour, which I think also concentrates the work down, giving it a sense of greater intensity.

Anyway, the piece begins broadly, warmly enough, a heartbeat from timpani and swings that swell up to give a big sweeping Romantic impression. This is a superb if not slightly cinematic opening, but I love it. Remember her time with RVW and Gordon Jacob.

But that feels like only the prelude, the introduction, the reveal of the enormous expanse below us, like we’re approaching the summit of a mountain or the edge of a cliff. The journey only begins in earnest when the violins take over with a theme they introduce quietly. There are more ominous shades, but also a violin solo. The music never stops, as if that very beginning has launched us on a non-stop flight through a landscape that we see from different angles throughout this work, at once expansive and compact.

The contrasts and triumphs outlined in the first movement are on a monumental, almost Mahlerian level, with celebratory, playful textures and colors, contrasted with moments of epic grandeur, and a triplet figure that makes my heart skip a beat. Her writing for individual instruments stands out as well, giving beautiful solos that contrast with these more towering moments, such as the beautiful English horn solo.

And by the time we hear that solo, we find ourselves in a long-ish sustained, broadly lyrical passage that seems to serve as a slow movement, but as the music retains much of the content from the opening, it feels alternatively like a fantastic development section. At MusicWeb International, a few reviewers try their hand at classifying this work. Unfortunately the disc has the symphony broken up into eleven tracks, making up as many as fifteen sections, which David Wright, Gipps’ biographer, says is “completely daft. The symphony is in one movement not fifteen episodes.” That’s something to keep in mind, I suppose. What we’re hearing is apparently not even intended to suggest a slow movement, but rather give the contrasts that are necessary for a compelling piece of music.

After a short brass gesture, we hear side drum and piccolo, something that I think everyone somehow or other associates with war or patriotism, and Wright says “The March is the sort of fife and drums march with prominent piccolos, that one associates with the American War of Independence.” Another reviewer likens this section to a scherzo for the work, but I’d prefer not trying to pigeonhole it into serving that kind of role. It’s not loud or bombastic, at least at first, but it’s powerful, with brass joining in the singing of the memorable theme that the piccolo introduced, trumpet solo and all.

And we really feel here that we’re marching toward some grand conclusion, something triumphant, and it does reach a climax of sorts, but doesn’t resolve or conclude as much as it does just sort of die away, like a military band fading off into the distance.

Or walking off a cliff. This ‘seam’ is the only segment in the piece where I feel we lost a little momentum or tension in the work overall, and that could just be due to Bostock’s overly slow tempo in the adagio section. We can hear its relation to what came before. It’s clearly derived from the same material, but if that transition hadn’t been so abrupt or drastic, we might have been able to keep that momentum across these sections. In any case, it’s written for strings, as Wright says, “It is music of the simplest composition. If written for the piano it would not even be Grade 1 … and yet is so effective.” A horn solo concludes this section, which I find an interesting choice. We’ve heard how effective Gipps can write for flute, oboe, English horn, but here, in a lyrical passage, we get a horn.

In fact, Gipps did write a horn concerto, and it features on the same album that I got on which concertos for horn form Jacob and Arnold appear, but I have unfortunately not listened to hers. We saw in the Horn Series that it, too, can be an expressive, delicate instrument, and it is indeed so in Gipps’ hands here. And this is an important moment in the work.

Why? Because after the horn finishes, the opening theme from the beginning of the piece reappears. We see now almost the entire scope of this work and what we’ve been presented with. Even the violin solo returns. And wait… are we hearing it in reverse? We hear a cello solo that seems new, but the faint heartbeat that opened the work returns!

Think of what we’ve heard in this symphony, just up to this point: sweeping, cinematic symphonic writing, expressive, idyllic, even folksy solos, a military march, an almost mournful adagio, and a full-on recapitulation, all without losing a single thread in the process, no loose ends or wild hairs.

And if we’re determined to give these sections traditional labels, it seems we have some kind of coda that features beautiful really exquisite brass chorale writing before coming around to an optimistic, hopeful close, despite what you might have thought about where it was headed. Gosh, that ending!

Everyone knows the quote about Mahler saying that a symphony must “be” or “contain” the entire world, that it must be epic and enormous and all-encompassing. And I’m a believer in that idea, at least from his pen. However, even he might have been impressed at what Ruth Gipps was able to include in a complete symphony that’s shorter than many of the individual movements Mahler penned.

The only work that I can think of right now that comes close to the kind of sweeping, epic journey compressed down into a small package anything like this is the third symphony of Ture Rangström, of almost equal length, but maybe with more programmatic intentions. In any case, I am outstandingly impressed with this symphony and it excites me to remember she has four others, as well as at least one piano concerto to get familiar with.

I think speaking of this piece as such a fine work from a female composer qualifies it too much. It’s not just a good example of a symphony from a female composer, or a British composer; it’s an astoundingly wonderful symphony regardless of those qualifiers. To be honest, it’s also a little disheartening that something this wonderful is so unknown. It’s easily one of the highlights of this series, or anything I’ve featured this year, and I only very recently came to know of its (or her) existence. How could that be? But at least we have the ability to discover music like this more easily than ever before, so seriously… go listen to more music.

Two of the other names this week are composers who music (or maybe even non-music) people would likely list (almost) first if you asked them to name English composers, and really, almost from there on out, are far less known. We’ve seen Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Walton and Parry, but who else can you think of? There are at least two who are worthy of mention, but I won’t be featuring their most famous or highly-regarded works. At least they got included, though, right? Stay tuned for that, and thanks for reading.

 

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