Malcolm Arnold and Ruth Gipps

Ruth Gipps
Ruth Gipps

by Alan Poulton
originally published in Beckus 100, Spring 2016

On one of my frequent visits to Northampton during 1983 (I was putting the finishing touches to the Faber catalogue of Arnold’s music), Malcolm showed me a letter he had received from one of his contemporaries at the Royal College of Music, Ruth Gipps.

The letter, dated 11 December 1982, was written from Tickerage Castle in East Sussex, the Gipps’s new home, to which they had recently moved from Kenley in Surrey. Ruth provides us with some evocative images of their new rural abode:

The old part of the house is huge oak beams and an inglenook and twisty stairs and pointed ceilings, 1600-ish … my study is only the boiler room but looks out onto rolling fields. It’s so quiet here and there are no neighbours to play Radio 2 or slam car doors. If it’s as beautiful as this in a wet December it will be heaven in the Spring … and there is peace to write some music even if nobody wants my sort of stuff now.

The main thrust of her letter, however, was to let him know about her latest concert programme with the London Rehearsal Orchestra, which she founded, and of which he was the President. She writes:

The LRO rehearsed three of your works this term – the Serenade for Orchestra and the 1st. Sinfonietta, both winners, and my favourite of all, the Blake Songs. I have done so much of
your music now that I wonder if the last movement of my 5th Symphony has a section influenced By Arnold, but at re- rehearsal last week nobody but me spotted it! A stranger case of ‘influence’ was that when one of the piccolos was practising a bit of my piece by himself it sounded just like Kodaly — which in context it wasn’t at all!

My 5th is written for a huge band because, what the hell, I can get the wind in the LRO, though never enough fiddles. Then I wait for years – my horn concerto, broadcast last week, was passed by the BBC Panel 131⁄2 years ago) and eventually it gets one broadcast. My 4th symphony was recorded by the BBC SO under Pritchard last January (after they had offered me a Composer Conducts and then withdrawn the offer) and I have no transmission date yet – that one had been waiting 8 years before the pre- recording. The worst, I think, is the case of [her son] Lance’s Overture ‘ABFE’ that won the RPS Prize under a nom-de-plume and was passed for broadcasting 10 years ago, and there is still no pre-recording date.

So now I write for what I like – quadruple woodwind, 6 horns, etc. – and at the try-out last week there was the wind in force (force was the right word…) with a few faithful string-players (some actually very good) struggling to get a balance. I’m doing it in the next LRO concert; I had to put it down for a per- performance so as to get an RVW Trust grant for the part-copying; anyway, fortunately, the players liked it. I am really doing a beg for you to come to London on Sunday 6th March and come to the GSM and hear it. It has a great big first movement, a little tiddly 5/4 intermezzo, a rather difficult scherzo with a cello solo going up to the B above the treble clef in the trio (like Bourgeois only, not such a good tune), and then a very odd finale – a Missa Brevis for orchestra – no singers, but tunes that fit the Latin words if you did have singers; and two listeners without scores said they could follow it through. I’m not a Catholic, by the way, but was brought up on the B minor at College – if you remember there was a brilliant young trumpeter playing in it. One got to know the words or most of them. It would mean the world to me if you could get to the first performance.

Unfortunately, Malcolm was not well enough to attend the première of her Fifth Symphony, but I wrote to Ruth Gipps on his behalf and wished her well, concluding with the thought that maybe Malcolm and I could attend an LRO concert on another occasion.

An opportunity presented itself sooner than I (or she) expected. During the summer of 1983, Faber Music had started to publish some of Malcolm’s early music: the Duo for flute and viola, the Symphonic Study ‘Machines’, and another orchestral piece, almost Delian in texture, Larch Trees. This last work had been first performed on 1 October 1943 at a CPNM Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by their young first trumpet and budding composer. Larch Trees had not been performed since its première, so with the composer’s approval, I suggested to Ruth Gipps that she may wish to give the work a first modern performance during the LRO’s 1983-84 season.

She was delighted to accept, and so on 26 February 1984 at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Barbican, London, Larch Trees was given its second performance by the London Repertoire Orchestra conducted by Ruth Gipps – and in the presence of a delighted composer.

In a letter to me dated 14 March 1984 Ruth Gipps wrote:

I was delighted to meet you and find you so sympatique. It was a pity our horns were so nervous in Malcolm’s Larch Trees – they were terrified of those exposed chords when he was in the audience! But anyway it has got the piece out again and everybody liked it. [1]Larch Trees was given a first broadcast performance by the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Christopher Seaman on 7 December 1984 and first recorded as part of the pioneering John Kehoe/Conifer CD set … Continue reading

A few weeks later I took the opportunity to send Ruth Gipps a copy of the score of Arnold’s Phantasy for string quartet, a work which was awarded second place in the W.W.Cobbett competition at the Royal College of Music in 1941 (by a curious irony the winner that year was Ruth Gipps’s own composition for piano quartet!). On 20 May 1984 she replied:

Now at last I’ve had time to look at Malcolm’s Phantasy String Quartet. It is already real Malcolm Arnold and is certainly good enough for performances – many of them. I can confirm that I won the 1st Cobbett Prize at the RCM in 1941 (1 was 2nd in 1940 with a string quartet) — my 1941 effort was a quartet for piano and strings called Brocade; it has been performed a few times and is being decently copied by my tame copyist now he has moved to a job in Austria and turns up at 3-year intervals with more of my early compositions done.

What I find so strange is that I don’t remember Malcolm as a composer at College at all; to me, he was the best trumpeter anywhere, and a character who wasn’t afraid to cheek the Director, the abominable George Dyson. When we were made (in 2nd Orchestra) to rehearse Mozart’s Piano Concerto 20 for half a term with one soloist, and then start the next term with another six weeks of it with another soloist, Malcolm started jazzing a trumpet bit near the end – and repeated this at the concert, in the Director’s presence. He apparently got away with it. Dyson was a bad man to cross, and one admired a student who dared do such a thing. I think Malcolm was 17 when he played 1st trumpet in the B Minor Mass immaculately. In fact, it sounds odd now, but after the war when I heard that he had given up the trumpet to be a composer my first thought was “What an awful waste.” Now looking at this early quartet I can see that he was already the real thing as a composer, with an individual voice. For years while he wrote a lot of film music he sailed close to the wind, and nearly tipped over into light music (it has been said that he ought to have been the British composer to write a great musical). It was at the first performance of the 3rd symphony that I woke up with a bump to the fact that he was a serious composer when he let himself be himself. His symphonies are very difficult for the LRO kind of orchestra because they are emptily scored and vulnerable; one lost 3rd flute and you’ve had it… They need Mozartian precision but don’t necessarily appeal to people who like Mozart. My brother, who used to lead for me didn’t like Malcolm’s music – thought it all too jazzy – and I eventually converted him with the Blake songs, which he had to admit were very beautiful. (And they are the real Malcolm…)

I would suggest that you aim at 3 getting a broadcast of the Quartet. [2]Since then, the Phantasy has been published by Queens Temple Publications (QT67) and performed on several occasions, among them a memorable first modern performance by the Allegri Quartet at … Continue reading Malcolm’s name is big enough to open doors. (Mine isn’t. My 4th Symphony was broadcast with some success, and the BBC promptly rejected the 5th. I am still made to submit works as if I were a student.)
Meantime thank you very much for all you are doing to help preserve the health and work for the future of one of the most important composers living today.”

Variations on a theme by Ruth Gipps CD
CHAN 9509

Variations for Orchestra on a theme of Ruth Gipps

Ruth Gipps was not only a contemporary of Malcolm Arnold at the RCM in the early forties but her Coronation March 4 of 1953, written for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, was the basis of a set of orchestral variations which Arnold composed in Ireland during the summer of 1977. This rarely-played work [3]Recently there has been a noticeable increase in performances including the 2021 Last Night of the Proms, his Op.122, entitled ‘Variations for Orchestra on a theme of Ruth Gipps’ was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, by the Chanticleer Orchestra conducted by Ruth Gipps on 22 February 1978. It was subsequently recorded by Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia on a Chandos disc (CHAN 9509) coupled with the equally neglected Manx Suite Op.142 of 1990.

Back in 2012, I made contact with Ruth Gipps’s daughter-in-law (Victoria Crowe, married to Lance Baker, Ruth’s son) to see if she was in possession of the composer’s autograph score. We duly met up in Guildford, Victoria had made the short journey from Woking armed with the original bound manuscript which is dedicated to Ruth Gipps and inscribed as follows:

“To Widdy with admiration and love from Malcolm, London, February 22/78” [4]Ruth Gipps once explained to me: “Malcolm has known me for so long that he uses my older nickname of Widdy, not Wid.”

Alan Poulton

References

References
1 Larch Trees was given a first broadcast performance by the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Christopher Seaman on 7 December 1984 and first recorded as part of the pioneering John Kehoe/Conifer CD set of Arnold’s orchestral music by London Musici conducted by Mark Stephenson [75605 51211-2/CDCF 211; later re-issued on Decca 4765348]
2 Since then, the Phantasy has been published by Queens Temple Publications (QT67) and performed on several occasions, among them a memorable first modern performance by the Allegri Quartet at London’s Purcell Room on 21 March 1996. It was also recorded in November 2000 by the Ceruti Ensemble on Guild GMCD 7216, and in December 2004 by the Maggini Quartet on Naxos 8.557762.
3 Recently there has been a noticeable increase in performances including the 2021 Last Night of the Proms
4 Ruth Gipps once explained to me: “Malcolm has known me for so long that he uses my older nickname of Widdy, not Wid.”
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