|NEWSLETTER||Vol. 2, No. 2|
Table of Contents
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Death Before Serialism
Composer, conductor, teacher, oboist and pianist Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) was an extraordinarily fearless and opinionated woman. “A Personal Credo,” published in Composer in 1975, included typical Gipps pronouncements: “Amplified ‘pop’ is evil and injures those who participate in it” and “I would sooner die than … set down an example of so-called ‘serial music.’” This kind of blinkered intransigence was coupled with a burning desire to encourage and enable the kind of music that she did believe in – tonal music in traditional forms and genres, mostly by British composers, including herself. After early successes—such as the premiere of an orchestral work at the 1943 Proms and jobs as oboist and chorus master with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra—Gipps’s musical career took place almost entirely outside the British musical establishment. There were fleeting moments of recognition for her achievements—in 1967 she served as Chair of the Composer’s Guild and in 1981 she was awarded the M.B.E. for her services to music. Yet seven years after her death, there is still only one professional recording of her music—the second symphony (1945) performed by Douglas Bostock and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra as part of Classico’s British Symphonic Collection (1999).
Jill Halstead knew and corresponded with Gipps for eight years. She has produced an engaging and thoughtful book on the life and work of her difficult, controversial yet always fascinating subject. This is a book which makes a useful and clear-sighted contribution to many important musicological issues including gender studies, British Music Studies, and the resurgence of interest and research into unashamedly and defiantly tonal music of the 20th century.
Halstead follows the traditional structure for a composer study, dividing her book into two sections covering first life and then works. Each section finishes with an insightful chapter entitled “Difference,”exploring Gipps’s outsider status. The first section includes a chapter on Gipps’s career as a conductor. While acknowledging the pioneering aspects of Gipps’s work as a conductor in such an overwhelmingly male profession, Halstead also shows that Gipps was following earlier generations of women conductors who embraced women’s traditional role as musical enablers in their work with amateur or community ensembles. Gipps founded her own ensembles which had important educational aims. The London Repertoire Orchestra offered students and young professionals the opportunity to play through a wide range of works and the Chanticleer Orchestra specialised in giving young soloists opportunities to play concertos. With both orchestras, Gipps made a point of performing music by living composers, particularly those British traditionalists who were her contemporaries such as Matthew Arnold (b.1921), Adrian Cruft (1921-1987) and Robert Simpson (1921-1997).
Halstead’s account of Gipps’s life—the subject of the first two chapters—is very reliant on Gipps’s own accounts of her life—two unpublished sets of memoirs as well as Halstead’s interviews and correspondence. A broader context and questioning of aspects of this life would have been welcome. For example, Gipps was born and grew up in Bexhill-on-Sea, a place that Gipps and Halstead dismiss as “not well served for orchestral and chamber concerts.” But would anyone expect such a small seaside town to be well served with orchestral concerts? Bexhill is probably best known for the remarkable modernist De La Warr Pavilion, erected in 1935 by the socialist mayor of the town who saw it as “the crucible for creating a new model of culture provision in an English Seaside town.” How might this momentous vision and achievement have affected Gipps as an impressionable teenager?
Like so many women who felt themselves to be pioneers, Gipps liked, in Halstead’s words, “to see herself as an honorary male.” Halstead is interesting on Gipps’ self-imposed distance from other women, especially other musicians. Unlike the previous generation of British women composers which included Elizabeth Maconchy, Grace Williams, Ina Boyle and Dorothy Gow, Gipps had no close circle of female colleagues to act as an alternative support network.
Halstead’s book left me impatient to hear more of Gipps’s music—in particular the fourth symphony (1972) and her settings of Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet (1950) and Christina Rossetti’s "Goblin Market" (1953). It is a book that will become a key text in British Music Studies, both for Halstead’s level headed assessment of Gipps’s life and work and for her lucid discussion of so much that is interesting and important in trying to understand the wider issues facing the study of British music and musical life in the 20th century.