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Women's History Month: Kingston University music expert on the career of composer Ruth Gipps and her role as a female musical leader

Posted Friday 19 March 2021

Women's History Month: Kingston University music expert on the career of composer Ruth Gipps and her role as a female musical leader

As part of Kingston University's Women's History Month celebrations, Head of the School of Performing Arts and associate professor of music Dr Helen Minors reflects on the work and influence of composer, pianist and conductor Ruth Gipps - who worked at Kingston Polytechnic in the years before it became Kingston University - in what is the centenary year of Gipps' birth. 

Earlier this month, on International Women's Day, I chaired a panel discussion about the work of Ruth Gipps, as part of a symposium exploring the range of her musical compositions and her contribution to British music, co-hosted by performance tutor Helena Ruinard and facilitated by Music in New Malden. I was keen to get involved for two reasons - both because Ruth Gipps represents a woman leader in music who made changes in an era where women were severely underrepresented, and her connection to Kingston University.

Gipps studied at the Royal College of Music in London and was taught for a time by Ralph Vaughan Williams before continuing her studies at Durham University. She was both an oboe and piano soloist, but I knew her name as a composer and conductor. An adaptable musician, she worked not only as a soloist but she also as an orchestra musician, holding the position of oboist and English horn player for the City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1944-1945.

Associate professor of music Dr Helen MinorsAssociate professor of music Dr Helen MinorsAs International Women's Day and Women's History Month often celebrate and explore, allies have assisted women in the fight for equality and for fair opportunities. The conductor of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, George Weldon, became a mentor and ally to Gipps, encouraging her to take up conducting. She held many posts, including the chorus master of the City of Birmingham Chorus. In leading change and developing musical opportunities, she set up her own musical groups, founding the London Repertoire Orchestra in 1955 and the Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961. In leading new developments in music, not only leading ensembles and establishing ensembles, she became the chair of the Composers' Guild of Great Britain, through which she supported the establishment of the British Music Information Guild.

As Head of the School of Performing Arts and associate professor of music since 2010, I was interested to learn that Ruth Gipps had been a senior lecturer at Kingston University in its former guise as Kingston Polytechnic, holding the post between 1977-1979. Likewise, her son, Lance Baker, later taught horn at Kingston University as a performance tutor.

Composer Ruth Gipps was born 100 years ago this year.Composer Ruth Gipps was born 100 years ago this year.The link caught my attention and as my own research explores the role of women in musical leadership, I was keen to learn more about her. My colleague Dr Laura Hamer and I are currently co-editing the Routledge Companion to Women and Musical Leadership: the nineteenth century and beyond, which includes the voices of more than 70 people from across the globe, and like Gipps, it spans performance, conducting, institutions and advocacy.

The book follows on from a three-day conference we held in London in 2019,  co-hosted with funding from The Open University, The Royal Musical Association and The Institute for Musical Research.

The conference also launched a series of performances for which I curated the pre-concert discussions for Women's Voices at Club Inégales, London, funded by The Arts Council, working with the artistic director Peter Wiegold, who has been one of my mentors and allies. Much like Gipps, who showed flexibility in her roles, I not only lead the discussions but performed in one event as a voice artist.

For me, Ruth Gipps showcases a strong example of a woman musical leader, but her experiences in struggling to get her work accepted after some of her male allies passed away shows that there was, and still is, more work to do to raise the profile of many diverse voices in the industry. To this end, with my colleagues Dr Laura Hamer from The Open University and Dr Laura Watson from Maynooth University in Ireland, we co-hosted a Women Leaders within the Contemporary Music Industries event this International Women's Day as part of the Women's Musical Leadership Online Project.

One of the musical leaders who sparked my research into female musical leadership was Marin Alsop's booking as conductor of the Last Night of the Proms in 2013. Alsop was the first women to conduct the event in the festival's then 118-year history, which seemed remarkable in the 21st century. Ruth Gipps herself also has a connection with this staple British music event, and I was fascinated to learn that she had one of her own pieces performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 1942. It was her tone poem, Knight in Armour, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, who went on to support Gipps in her musical career.

Furthering my own experience of Gipps music, I will be sharing some of her works in my weekly radio show on Radio Wey as part of an episode exploring the music of, among others, Clara Schumann. This will be broadcast on April 11 and made available on Mixcloud after it airs. 

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