A composer of our time

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MICHAEL TIPPETT'S death on Thursday closed not just a chapter in British musical life but - you could argue - the whole book. At least, the book entitled English Musical Renaissance. Born in 1905, before Britten, not long after Walton, at a time when Elgar hadn't yet produced a symphony and Vaughan Williams was still struggling through semi-juvenilia, he belonged to what was, by any reckoning, a great age. And he was perhaps the last British composer whose own greatness could be reckoned both in stature and in popularity. Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, John Tavener et al who succeed him might claim one or the other, but not both.

The list of Tippett's special qualities as a composer would be long. Above all he was a free spirit, endowed with maverick ingenuity and a childlike indifference to convention that was equally the delight and burden of his music. The delight was its exuberance, its dancing and ecstatic rhythmic life, its visionary allure. The burden was its sometimes crazy eccentricity: a lack of discipline and order that caused early commentators to dismiss it as incompetent. And it certainly took Tippett a while to be accepted by the musical establishment. He was in his forties before he achieved serious recognition; and it was lucky that he was then able to compensate for a slow start with an unusually long creative life. His last orchestral score, The Rose Lake, was completed at the age of 88 in 1993.

By then, Tippett was not only this country's greatest living composer (a title acquired by natural right after Britten's death in 1976) but a figure of some broader moral force. With the impeccable pedigree of a wartime prison sentence for ignoring the terms of his registration as a pacifist, he built a reputation as an artist who was not afraid to stand up and be counted.

He constructed music around "issues". And the score that made his name, the oratorio A Child of Our Time, was exactly that: a musical indictment of how majorities persecute minorities, specifically inspired by the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany but with wider implications. Tippett was gay. And that too became an "issue" in his music, with The Knot Garden laying claim to history as the first successful opera to present, without disguise, a homosexual relationship on stage.

The success of Tippett's operas, though, remains a matter for debate. Compromised by risible libretti (which he always wrote himself) and plots that read like bogus Jungian comic-strips, they scale the heights and depths of operatic fantasy and beg considerable tolerance. But the best of them - The Midsummer Marriage, The Knot Garden, King Priam - contain some of the most sublime, transcendent, vital music ever written for the lyric stage. And there are at least a dozen Tippett scores in other forms for which I'd make comparable claims, including the Child, the Corelli Fantasia and Double Concerto (Tippett's Classic FM meal-tickets), the Piano Concerto, the earlier string quartets, and the exotically bruised harmonies of the Triple Concerto. In such music, Tippett gave us passports to another world: benign, beguiling, better than the one we know.

His work was finished, he was very old, and so his death is not a tragedy. But while he lived he was an ageless icon: someone whose apparent youthfulness and ink-daubed plimsolls (for years I never saw him wear anything else) set out to defy the passage of time. Now we know that time has passed. And with it, the miraculous era when Britain, the "Land without Music", rediscovered its voice. I wouldn't care to say what happens next.