From the Sleevenotes: Opalescence

Sleevenotes by Duncan Honeybourne, David Heyes, and Joseph Spooner from Prima Facie PFCD171, Opalescence, Piano and Chamber Music by Ruth Gipps.

Ruth Gipps: a musical polymath and a powerful voice in British music

Ruth Gipps was a remarkably versatile musician. She was a brilliant pianist who could – and did – triumphantly tackle the hallowed summits of the Brahms Second Concerto. She also toured nationwide as a freelance orchestral player during the dark days of the Second World War, as the second oboist and cor anglais player of the City of Birmingham Orchestra (CBO). Musicians with long memories remember her with fondness and fear as a spirited and pioneering conductor who, bruised and frustrated by the musical establishment’s distrust of baton-wielding women, simply set up her own orchestras and ran them with remarkable drive and success for more than three decades. Gipps made her professional conducting debut at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957, and the London Repertoire Orchestra – later the London Chanticleer Orchestra – introduced many outstanding young soloists at the outset of their careers. Gipps’s enterprises also gave a vibrant and much-needed platform to a significant tranche of neglected orchestral music, much of it by British composers working in traditional forms whose outputs had been sidelined by promoters in a culture then favouring the more assertively avant garde.

But this extraordinarily gifted musical polymath, a woman of powerful creative imagination and intense intellectual rigour, was first and foremost a composer. As memories of Gipps (or ‘Wid’, as she always liked to be called) recede with the passing years, we are left solely with her output of some eighty works as a memorial to her daring, questing, romantic spirit. Cast in a broad range of forms and genres, these are fastidious in craftsmanship, overwhelmingly tonal, invariably lyrical and poetic, and frequently deeply affecting. ‘My music’, she wrote, to her biographer Jill Halstead, ‘is a follow-on from Vaughan Williams, Bliss and Walton – the three giants of British music since the Second World War. All were great and inspired composers.’ A vigorous exploration of Gipps’s wide-ranging output certainly offers abundant evidence of a highly individual genius whose vivid and communicative personality is unmistakeably and strongly her own. Many influences are distilled in her work, but a full-blooded originality sings throughout. This recording delves into a selection of Gipps’s chamber works, and presents her complete œuvre for solo piano, to commemorate the centenary of her birth in 2021. It features her first work – The Fairy Shoemaker – and her last, the Sonata for double bass and piano, separated by some sixty-seven years.

Ruth Dorothy Louisa Gipps was born, to an English father and a Swiss mother, on 20 February 1921 in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. She was only eight when she composed her first acknowledged piece, The Fairy Shoemaker for piano, and by the time she was ten she was fulfilling regular engagements as a pianist, at a fee of two guineas per concert. She went on to the Royal College of Music in 1937, studying oboe with Leon Goossens, piano with Arthur Alexander, and composition with Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose influence was to be decisive and enduring. At the age of twenty-six, when Gipps was awarded a doctorate in music by Durham University for her cantata The Cat,she became one of the youngest holders of a doctorate in music in the land, and indeed the first British woman to receive such a qualification.

In 1945, Ruth Gipps appeared as soloist with the CBO in Glazunov’s First Piano Concerto, before retreating to the orchestra in the second half of the concert to play the cor anglais in her own First Symphony. A champion of some highly virtuosic piano repertoire, she broadcast piano solos from the BBC’s Birmingham studios and premiered her own 1948 Piano Concerto with the CBO in Birmingham Town Hall. A shoulder injury suffered in the 1950s however ended Gipps’s career as a pianist, and she concentrated thereafter on conducting, composing, and lecturing. In 1969, she became the first woman to conduct her own symphony in a BBC radio broadcast, and her work as a conductor – with the Boyd Neel Orchestra and subsequently with her own two orchestras – ensured that she was frequently before the public, even though her gender, outspokenness, and conservative musical language often effectively saw her sidelined by the British musical establishment in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gipps was chorus master of the City of Birmingham Choir (1948–50) and in 1966 became only the second woman (the first was Elizabeth Maconchy) to serve as chair of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain. She held lecturing posts at Trinity College of Music, London (now Trinity Laban Conservatoire) from 1959 to 1966, the Royal College of Music from 1967 to 1977), and later at Kingston Polytechnic.

In retirement, Ruth Gipps returned to her native Sussex, taking up organ playing and holding appointments at the village churches of High Hurstwood and Ripe with Chalvington. She died in an Eastbourne nursing home in February 1999, two days after her 78th birthday.

In his obituary of Gipps for The Guardian, Bret Johnson remarked that ‘although she derived no tangible benefit from the recent revival of interest in the lost generation of English romantics, Ruth Gipps can only have derived satisfaction that the wheel had begun to turn in her favour. She was an all-rounder in the best sense of the term, and her contribution to British musical life over five decades is both immeasurable and enduring.’ In her centenary year, Ruth Gipps’s music received a fresh impetus of interest, with a glut of performances, broadcasts, and recordings. It is curious that so facile and active a pianist should have composed so few solo works for the instrument, but those three pieces are included on the present disc, alongside several finely wrought mature masterpieces for cello and double bass. The sonatas for both instruments with piano are among the premiere recordings here.
Duncan Honeybourne 2021

Sonata for cello and piano, op. 63 (1978) (world premiè˘re recording)

I. Andante espressivo, Allegro (4’43”)

II. Andantino (5’46”)

III. Finale: Allegro (2’39”)

Dedicated to and premiered by the cellist Loraine Nagioff, the Cello Sonata is an effective and inspired utterance of Gipps’s full maturity. In her mid-fifties and at the height of her powers, Gipps crafted a work that, although extensive in its emotional range and strong in its dramatic power, is highly economical in its design. The whole work lasts less than fifteen minutes, and the succinct finale less than three, but the piece packs a terrific punch, and a wide colouristic and expressive canvas is traversed with a sure hand. This Sonata, both approachable and sophisticated, is at once engagingly pastoral and infectiously spiky, with its strong lyrical, modal, and rhythmic impulses blended irresistibly. The first movement opens with a sombre introduction, the piano’s chords providing a bedrock for the cello’s reflective lyrical musings. A jaunty, dance-like episode interjects, full of verve and high spirits and with a folk-like accent. The twin elements of warm lyricism and edgy rhythmic zest define the movement. The second movement has the intense character of a heartfelt threnody, rising to feverish climaxes and making full use of the lyrical potential of both instruments in gloriously unified power. The last movement is a whirling romp, highly original and full of the irrepressible high energy that must have underlain Ruth Gipps’s own character. The structure is drawn with perfect symmetry and dramatic power: following a brief glance back to the sublime tranquillity of the slow movement, the movement ends in torrents of joie de vivre.
Duncan Honeybourne

The Fairy Shoemaker (1929) (world premiere recording)


This remarkable little piece, Ruth Gipps’s first published work, was written at Bexhill-on-Sea and completed when the composer was a mere eight years old. It won a prize in the Brighton Festival for the precocious young musician, who had already made her debut at London’s Grotrian Hall. The Manchester publishing house bought the rights to the piece for the princely sum of one and a half guineas! In her biography of Gipps, Jill Halstead writes that ‘the real identity of the composer was only revealed at the prize winners’ concert when an eight year old “Wid” (the name by which she was known throughout her life to family and friends) took to the stage to perform her piece for the astonished audience.’ Halstead observes that ‘although such stunts grabbed the national headlines, they also seemed to fuel hostility towards the family. Rumours began to circulate that it was actually Helene (Gipps’ Swiss-born mother) who had written the composition for her daughter.’ It was not to be the last time that others would take aim at the diversely gifted Ruth Gipps in a spirit of jealousy and ill-will. A mere trifle this slender piece may be, but it is engagingly descriptive and imaginative. Whilst childlike, in the sense of being direct and unsophisticated, it surely reveals a nascent musicianship of the highest order. Cast in simple ternary form, the piece betokens a keen ear and eye for character, shape, line, and contrast. Looking at it objectively over ninety years after its composition, it seems unsurprising that its eight-year old creator was to emerge as a veritable powerhouse of musical endeavour in the decades that followed.
Duncan Honeybourne

Theme and Variations, op. 57a (1965)


The Theme and Variations were composed in 1965 for the young English pianist Eileen Broster, of whom Ruth Gipps thought very highly and who went on to broadcast the Gipps Piano Concerto with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1972. The theme is taken from the third movement of Gipps’ own Third Symphony, but here it is subjected to superbly integrated and beautifully idiomatic pianistic treatment. A melody of affecting warmth and simplicity, it appears in various registers throughout the course of the piece, and gains much from the subtle transformations engineered by the ever-imaginative Gipps. A range of harmonic backdrops casts a varied palette of colouristic shades on the theme’s upward-yearning contour, whilst the rippling keyboard figurations of variations 2 and 5 remove it far from its symphonic origin. Variation 3 has a martial character, and the final variation (no. 6) reaches an expansive and opulent climax, before the final coda recalls the theme against a chilling off-beat quaver pulse in the piano’s left hand.
Duncan Honeybourne

The Ox and the Ass: Introduction and Carol, op. 71 (1988)


Unfortunately, I never met Ruth Gipps, but we corresponded and spoke by telephone for over a year prior to her debilitating stroke in 1997, and her larger-than-life character shone through her letters and conversation. My knowledge of Ruth was as a ‘colourful’ character on the London musical scene and as a prolific composer, although, until her memorial concert in London in July 1999, I had never played any of her music. In early 1996, the British Music Information Centre (BMIC) in London supplied me with a list of British double bass music in their collection, a relatively small list to say the least, but one intriguing work caught my attention – The Ox and the Ass for double bass and piano by Ruth Gipps. I telephoned her, and we had a wonderfully animated conversation, partly about the double bass, but also about her music and the unjust neglect of her orchestral works, in particular her five symphonies. A few days later, on 2 March 1996, I received a typed letter, emblazoned with an illustration of Tickerage Castle, her family home for many years, and a copy of The Ox and the Ass. Her letter read:

“Many thanks for your ’phone call. I have looked through my stuff and found two copies of the bass and piano parts (and words!) but no full score of Ox & Ass. So I rang Russell Killick, and he has two copies of the full score and also a set of parts, which he will post you direct, only he couldn’t find his piano part … As you can see, this thing was written for a chap who was a good musician but hadn’t been playing the bass very long. He would probably have played it better on his bass pos. [Bass Trombone] However, he never performed it at all – it being a minor casualty of the Gulf War. (VERY minor.) He says that the parts (which he copied) are not very beautiful. About Grade 6?

Please let me know if it’s of any use to you. I shall not be hysterical if you don’t want it. My interest is really in my five symphonies (the 5th being for a Planets-size orchestra) not in little smidgles like this …”

The Ox and the Ass: Introduction & Carol (op. 71) was completed on 26 October 1988 and was dedicated to Russell Killick, who gave a private performance in December 1990 with the Salon Orchestra, conducted by Major Garraty, at the Royal Artillery Officers’ Mess. The first public performance was at Wells Cathedral School (Somerset, UK) on 12 June 1999 by Alexandra Hengstebeck (double bass) and Mark Cracknell (piano). It is scored for double bass and chamber orchestra or piano and has a beautiful pastoral mood. The lyrical middle section (the carol) is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams and the folk-song idiom, and is modal and English in character. The accompaniment is gently supportive and imaginatively orchestrated, as is to be expected from such a talented and experienced symphonist. The solo part was also arranged for contra-bassoon by the composer. The Ox and the Ass is tonal, traditional, and very accessible. It emphasises the lyrical and sonorous qualities of the double bass and its atmospheric and inventive accompaniment should appeal to players of all ages.
David Heyes

The carol The Ox and the Ass is a setting of Ruth Gipps’s own words:

The first of His disciples attended at His birth,
And watched with gentle eyes their Saviour born on earth,
In silence made their compact to serve Him till their death,
And warmed the new-born Babe with their own sweet-scented breath.

While people at the inn can find no room to spare
The ox and ass move over for Mary to be there.
The angels and the shepherds, the Wise Men with their star,
Come searching where the ox and ass already are.

So shall it ever be, though for love of God we thirst,
The simple ox and ass will always be there first.
Let angels, shepherds, Wise Men, stay humbly in their place –
The ox and ass were surely the first to see his face.

Opalescence, op. 72 (1989)


Opalescence is a delicious piece of impressionism, glittering and flickering with all the luxuriant iridescence of its title. As befitting an evocation of a gemstone perceived through subtle shifts of colour and hue, the writing here is intensely chromatic and densely chordal. Unsurprisingly for a composer who was (or had been) a pianist in the virtuoso class, rippling arpeggiation is beautifully integrated and gratefully pianistic, not least in the more energised middle section. We glimpse the precious opal under shafts of changing light and evolving colour, as Gipps’s gently beguiling tone poem unfolds with serene liquidity and rare beauty. Opalescence is dedicated to the American pianist Selma Epstein (1927–2014), who gave the world première in Amsterdam on 9 April 1989.
Duncan Honeybourne

Scherzo and Adagio for Unaccompanied Cello, op. 68 (1987) (world première recording)


The Scherzo and Adagio for Unaccompanied Cello is one of small number of works by Gipps for solo instruments. It has a simple ternary structure, with the short Scherzo section, which is skittish but wistful in nature, followed by a considerably longer Adagio section notable for its keening passion; the Scherzo returns unchanged, and the piece finishes with a very brief and tempestuous coda. Gipps rises to one of the challenges of writing for any solo instrument – creating the impression of several different voices – with simple and elegant solutions. In the Scherzo, accompaniments are plucked (sometimes with the left hand, sometimes the right) between portions of the melodic line, the writing allows plenty of room for a variety of articulations from the bow, and the dynamic range is narrow. Other types of writing are reserved for the Adagio: single melody lines with simultaneous plucked accompaniment, and passages where two melodic lines are played simultaneously (some of them challenging for the performer to bring off, especially at the emotional climax). The work, completed on 21 July 1987, was composed at the request of cellist David Johnstone, to whom it is dedicated. Johnstone had been asked to programme a concert at St John’s, Smith Square (London), with music from the ’80s of different centuries; he approached Gipps for a piece, and she was taken with the idea. The Scherzo and Adagio was premiered by David Johnstone at St John’s on 29 September 1988, and the work has been performed several times since then by the same cellist, both in England and on the Continent.
Joseph Spooner

Sonata for Double Bass and Piano, op. 81 (1996) (world première recording)

I. Allegro moderato (4’11”)

II. Andante (4’49”)

III. Vivace (2’43”)

A few months into our friendship, I broached with Ruth Gipps the subject of her writing a new double bass piece for me, and she, without any hesitation, agreed to write a sonata for double bass and piano. It was completed on 8 September 1996, and a hand-copied score of the piece arrived a few days later together with the following letter:

“Here is the projected bass sonata. I’m sorry my copying is so horrible – I have difficulty reading my rough notes (Lance [her son] is the only person who can decipher them) and also I have a slightly unsteady hand, and also I’m too lazy to measure or rule anything. My crotchet rests are dreadful (though there’s one quite elegant one at the bottom of page 3 …)

I have come to the conclusion that after studying music for 71 years my ignorance about the double bass would fill a book. I ought to know something about it, having conducted two bass concertos in the Q.E.H. [Queen Elizabeth Hall, London] – but all I remember is David Jones playing endless harmonics and I had to get the orchestra to keep down …

This copy is not phrased much, or edited, or bowed – you will do all that better; one can’t phrase the piano part until the bass part is done. Please also mark any useful harmonics. I may have been quite wrong making a climax where the bass is high (3 before L).

I’ve marked the slow movement Andante, wanting a beautiful sound (like Quartetto Italiano) on the swaying 2+3, 3+2 – but you may prefer Andantino. So I’m leaving timing to you. Everything goes faster nowadays … Anyway this job is done, and I’ll return to studying Tchaikowsky’s wonderful string quartets and sextet.

With my best wishes – Wid.”

From childhood, Ruth Gipps had been known as Wid to her family and friends; I was so happy to be included in her circle of musical friends.

The three-movement sonata is kindly dedicated to me and was her final work. The musical style demonstrates a composer with a love of colour and texture, primarily using the lower register of the double bass, in contrast with an independent piano accompaniment that adds drive and drama. The first movement (Allegro moderato) is confident and energetic, deftly moving from key to key with the two performers constantly moving forward until the closing bars, which bring the movement to a simple and effective conclusion. The second movement (Andante) is the heart of the work, with a beautiful cantilena for the double bass, playing in its middle register, supported by a gently undulating and chordal accompaniment. The textures are rich and luxurious, emphasising the double bass’s sonorous and cantabile qualities. A rhythmic and vibrant Vivace brings the work to a strong and successful conclusion. The introduction of pizzicato adds a new colour alongside jaunty themes and rhythms, imparting fun and character to a work of great distinction and quality. Ruth Gipps’s Sonata for double bass and piano is a substantial work that gives the double bass equal billing with the piano.
David Heyes