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Ruth Gipps: A Centenary Tribute


Ruth Gipps was a self-declared rebel all her life and was one of Britain’s most prolific female composers, producing well over 100 works including five symphonies, numerous tone poems, six concertos and various chamber and choral works. I’ve suffered from being unintentionally rather conspicuous. My mother was Swiss and it was natural for me to…

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International Journal of Music

Ruth Gipps was a self-declared rebel all her life and was one of Britain’s most prolific female composers, producing well over 100 works including five symphonies, numerous tone poems, six concertos and various chamber and choral works.

I’ve suffered from being unintentionally rather conspicuous. My mother was Swiss and it was natural for me to wear bright colours but polite English society doesn’t really go for large, jolly, wide-hipped and colourful females like me.

She was a composer, conductor and professional musician at a time when the profession was male-dominated and became an unwitting pioneer, campaigning ardently for British music and musicians all her life.

Dr Jill Halstead, a leading academic, writes:

Stylistically her work parallels the other British composers of her generation who were influenced by the folk song revival and the new Franco-Russian movement. Her style is easily accessible and rich in character, marked by use of highly melodic tonal/modal themes and vibrant orchestration; harmonically her work can be chromatically complex yet never fully leaves the realms of tonality.

Unfortunately, I didn’t meet Ruth Gipps, but we corresponded and spoke by phone for over a year, prior to her debilitating stroke in 1997, and I remember a larger than life character which shone through her letters and conversation. My knowledge of Ruth was as a ‘larger than life’ 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 phoned 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. [Although known as ‘Tickerage Castle’ and probably built on the site of an old castle, the house is believed to date from the 16th Century, has Grade II listing, and is now a luxury bed and breakfast.] 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 letter gives a very good indication of Ruth Gipps’ character and personality, her passion for her symphonic music, alongside good humour and practicality, and her music is certainly ready for a major revival today.

Ruth Gipps was born in Bexhill-on-Sea on 20 February 1921, and her prodigious musical talent was discovered at the age of three. By the age of ten, she was playing piano concertos with local orchestras, and her first compositions were published in 1929. At the age of fifteen, she was awarded a place at the Royal College of Music, London, to study composition with R.O. Morris and Ralph Vaughan Williams, oboe with Leon Goossens, and piano with Arthur Alexander and Kendall Taylor. She won a number of composition prizes at this time, and her tone poem Knight in Armour was conducted by Sir Henry Wood at the Last Night of the Proms in 1942.

She played oboe and cor anglais with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1944 – 1945) and subsequently began a conducting career which was certainly an unusual step for a woman in the 1940s and 50s. Undaunted, she founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in 1955, which she ran until 1986, the London Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961, and was offered conducting work with the London Symphony Orchestra, Boyd Neel Orchestra and Pro Arte Orchestra. Alongside her conducting and composing commitments, Ruth Gipps spent much of her life as a Professor of Composition and Harmony, including appointments at Trinity College of Music (1960 – 1966), Royal College of Music (1967 – 1977) and from 1977 as Senior Lecturer in Music at Kingston Polytechnic (now University). In 1967 she became the second woman to chair the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain and was awarded an MBE in 1981. Ruth Gipps died on 23 February 1999 at the age of 78, and I was privileged to play The Ox and the Ass at her memorial concert at the British Music Information Centre in London on 14 July that year.

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 Officer’s 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 (double woodwind, two horns and strings) or piano, and lasts a little over 4 minutes. It has a beautiful pastoral mood, and the lyrical second section (Carol) is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams and the folk song idiom, modal and English in character, with an accompaniment that is gently supportive and imaginatively orchestrated, to be expected from such a talented and experienced symphonist. The solo part was also arranged for contra-bassoon by the composer and subsequently recorded in America by Susan L. Nigro.

Although the poem, written by the composer, has an obvious Christmas theme, much as Peter Warlock‘s song The First Mercy, this is gloriously melodic music that would easily fit into any concert at any time of the year and displays the lyrical sonorities of the double bass, using a three-octave range. When the music first arrived, I played through the solo part, then in E minor, but felt that it worked much better, a tone lower. I spoke to Ruth, and she readily agreed with my suggestion — she was certainly a practical composer — and if played in solo tuning, the work sounds in the key she had originally envisioned. There is nothing here to challenge or annoy an audience, simply beautiful and evocative music written by a composer who is unjustly neglected to say the least.

The Ox and the Ass is tonal, traditional and accessible. It emphasises the lyrical and sonorous qualities of the double bass and, alongside its atmospheric, colourful and inventive accompaniment, should appeal to players of all ages. Lasting around four minutes, it would fit into any recital programme and be a wonderful contrast to the traditional solo and transcription repertoire.

My pioneering zeal to create a modern and original solo repertoire for the double bass began in 1981 with Cat and Mouse for soprano and double bass from the London-based composer Betty Roe. To date, more than 700 works have been composed for me by composers around the world, but primarily from composers throughout the UK.

A few months into my friendship with Ruth Gipps, I broached the subject of her writing a new double bass piece for me and, without any hesitation, she 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 alongside her 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 was known as Wid to her family and friends, and 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, contrasting 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 soloists 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 sonorous and cantabile qualities of the double bass. 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, which add fun and character to a work of great distinction and quality. Ruth Gipps’ Sonata for double bass and piano is a substantial work that gives the double bass equal billing with the piano.

Ruth Gipps was an amazing character in British musical life for over 50 years — as a composer, performer, conductor and university lecturer — and her music deserves to be far better known. Thankfully, the centenary of her birth this year has ensured a reassessment of her music and performances; recordings are bringing her music to new audiences and, finally, her music is gaining the praise and recognition it so richly deserves.

An obituary in Classical Music magazine (17 April 1999) ended “Although she never gained wide recognition as a composer, Ruth Gipps was a much-loved figure and remained active throughout her life. ‘A day with no work is a wasted day’, she would say”. My sentiment exactly.

Many thanks to Dr Victoria Rowe and The Ruth Gipps Archive for permission to use the photograph of the composer.

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