Saturday, March 28, 2015

More Ruth Gipps

I have been listening to more Ruth Gipps and can't resist another post.  I make no apology - this music needs to be heard!

Here is her second symphony, for example,  which seems to be available on disc here.  Its first performance in 1946 earned the composer at least some short-lived prominence before the advent of modernism (as mentioned in my previous post), and indeed has the very qualities that were about to be thrown out wholesale: an ear for melody, an awareness of tradition and (I dare say) an unabashed quest for beauty. 

Then there is her third symphony - rather less accessible than either her previous symphony or her piano concerto, but I think, as in this last work, that the second and third movements are the most immediately attractive, and provide the quickest way to the core of beauty running through the whole work.  Gipps still welcomes all listeners in - even those like me whose musical training is slight.  If I say that some of these passages are unlike anything I have heard before (particularly treble), that is not to suggest that Gipps had suddenly embraced modernism, but rather that she persisted in the opposite belief, mined tonal music, found it far from exhausted, wrought all kinds of moods and utterances out of it, and thereby out of her treasure-house brought both things old and things new.  

This makes it all the more frustrating that there is no commercial recording of this symphony (though an arrangement for piano of the second movement can be heard here and bought here).  Where is her music in the record-shops and on the radio?  Where is her music at the Proms?  Why is her work so universally unperformed?   I don’t think that there is any good reason for this neglect, though there are some poor reasons.  One is the strong-minded personality to which my previous post alluded, and about which I have been reading some more in Jill Halstead’s book.  Gipps’ rejection of modern musical trends was not only personal, which in those strange 1960s was alone enough to scupper a composer’s career, but all her life took the form of loud and uncompromising protest.  On the one hand, she proclaimed that ‘Amplified “pop” is evil and harms everyone who listens to it’, and on the other:
‘My music is a follow-on from Vaughan Williams, Bliss and Walton - the three giants of music since the Second World War.  All were great and inspired composers... I say straight out that I regard all so-called 12-tone music, so-called serial music, so-called electronic music and so-called avant-garde music as utter rubbish and indeed a deliberate conning of the public'.
Rather mischievously I rejoice in this sort of glorious polemic, and thank goodness that somebody, at least, took the modernists to task.  She even once accosted William Glock, the Head of Music at the B.B.C from 1959 to 1972, apostle of serialism and the main culprit for the silencing of light music (a tale for another post!):
‘With typical boldness she confronted Glock face to face, and in what was for her an unforgettable encounter asked him why he wanted so much power and why he felt he had the right to ostracize tonal music.  It is not clear how Glock responded, but such audacity on Gipps's part did little to help her cause’.
The cost of this outspokenness seems to have been extraordinarily high.  A narrow band deemed her music unfashionable (indeed obsolete) and her words unwelcome, and this was all it took to consign her to an obscurity from which her name is still to emerge.  Gipps herself was resigned to this state of affairs (‘I know I am a real composer, perhaps they will only realise it when I’m dead’), but in my view it remains unjust.  The bluntness of her remarks might be off-putting to some, but beyond their tone they contain something else worthier and more significant: namely, I feel, a concern for the listener.  She was angered by pop music because she believed it harmed its listeners; she railed against serialism because she thought it represented a ‘deliberate conning of the public’.  Awareness of and respect for the audience – in both ‘light’ and ‘high’ culture – have been thin on the ground ever since the 1960s, being very anti-modern and indeed very anti-post-modern.  Yet I cannot be alone in feeling that its re-awakening would do the arts – and us all – a lot of good, as would a revival of interest in Ruth Gipps and her music.


Jill Halstead’s book is called ‘Anti-Modernism, Nationalism and Difference in English Music’  (Ashgate, 2006).

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