Is it too early for a Tippet centenary?

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Michael Tippett. The Proms are doing a big number on him. So what, asks the composer Andrew Ford, makes Tippett's music so English? Come to that, what is English music? Perhaps this question can only truly be answered in Australia...
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Tippett's centenary has come too soon for me. It doesn't feel right. Eight years ago he was still alive; 11 years ago he was still composing. Surely this is too early for a cool consideration of his life's work. I still have difficulty remembering that he is dead.

A Child of Our Time was performed by the Sydney Philharmonia Choir under its conductor Brett Weymark. There was generous commitment, passion even, from the singers, and hearing the piece seemed to crystallise a number of nagging suspicions I've had ever since the day of the centenary itself, back on 2 January.

I spent all that day driving to Melbourne from the New South Wales Southern Highlands where I live. It was stinking hot, the sun was dazzling and, since eastern Australia was - and still is - in the grip of drought, the landscape didn't look a lot like Surrey. It was flat and dusty and there were dead wombats and kangaroos along the side of the road.

In the car I was playing CDs in preparation for my participation in the summer school run by the Australian Youth Orchestra. One of the works to be rehearsed and performed was Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and as I dodged the mashed marsupials I listened to that piece, and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, in performances conducted by the composer himself. They are rather direct readings. Tippett was a self-confessed sentimentalist, but these are far from sentimental performances, and so I was rather surprised, at the end of the Fantasia, to find that behind my sunglasses there were tears in my eyes. As I listened, it occurred to me how English this music sounded.

In terms of its form, Tippett's piece is a sort of baroque concerto grosso. It's based on a theme by a 17th-century Italian, and at one point it quotes a fugue by Bach (itself based on a theme of Corelli). Nothing very English about that. But there's a pastoral quality to the music, a sense of nostalgia that is strongly redolent of England, or at least of an idealised Englishness. Above all, perhaps, there's an oddness - I am tempted to call it eccentricity - that sets it apart from the European mainstream.

The piece's immediate model is surely Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Like Vaughan Williams's piece, Tippett's is a free-wheeling fantasy about music from another time. With the Vaughan Williams, that other time is obviously Tallis's Tudor England, and oddly enough it's also Tudor England with the Tippett. Nominally, the piece might celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Arcangelo Corelli, but the sprung rhythms of Tippett's string writing and the knotted lyricism of his counterpoint owe less to the European baroque than to Elizabethan and Jacobean composers of madrigals and consort music. The fantazias of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons were always close to Tippett's heart, and their presence is felt here, while the harmony of this piece is often in thrall to Henry Purcell, especially in that "pastoral" interlude just before the end. This was the bit that sounded so "English" to me as I motored down the Hume Highway to Victoria that sweltering day. But still none of it accounted for the tears.

Was it homesickness that unmanned me? I have lived in Australia for 22 years without pining much for England, so why would it start now? And anyway, it wasn't the incongruity of that music in this landscape that struck me at all, rather the opposite. There seemed to be a curious fit between Tippett's piece and the wide expanses of scrubland and bush.

I think part of my response to the music was linked to the prospect of hearing the same piece played a week later by the group of student musicians. Tippett was always interested in young people. He certainly regretted having no children of his own, although, since he was gay, that was never going to be a simple project. On the conductor's podium in front of a youth orchestra he was immediately at home - more at home than before a professional band - his enthusiasm communicating itself instantly to the young players, who invariably gave him their best efforts. Although Tippett came to Australia a few times and was liked and admired by audiences, none of those about to play his Fantasia Concertante last January would have been out of primary school when he made his final visit. One or two of them probably weren't even born. Tippett, who still felt like such a presence in my own life, was, at best, going to be a historical name to these kids.

But there was an advantage to this. Because they didn't know Tippett or his music, the players at the AYO National Music Camp also didn't know that the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli was supposed to be difficult. In 1953, the BBC had booked Malcolm Sargent to conduct the first performance of the piece at the Edinburgh Festival. But the conductor saw the score and turned tail. He contacted Tippett's publisher complaining of the music's "intellectualism", which he said was exactly the sort of thing he was hoping to eradicate from English music. In the end, Tippett conducted that first performance himself, but for years afterwards the piece had the reputation of being both tricky to play and challenging to listen to.

Sargent's charge of intellectualism says more, I fear, about the conductor than about Tippett's music. Now, when one hears this piece, it is the unbridled lyricism that seems most remarkable. Tippett mostly wore his heart on his sleeve, and nowhere more than in this piece. Difficult? Intellectual? I don't think so. As for being tricky to play: well, these Australian teenagers didn't find it too daunting. The performance was fine and full-blooded, and it provoked the same response in me as it had when I'd listened to the recording in my car.

What I think the student musicians responded to and projected so well in their performance was the same quality that moved me each time I heard the piece. There is an openness in Tippett's best music, a freshness, a candour even, that suits the young and, as I discovered, suits expansive rural landscapes. Candour might not be the first quality one associates with Englishness, but it's worth remembering that Tippett was a countryman. He spent his childhood at Wetherden in Suffolk, his early adult life in Oxted on the North Downs, and he lived out his old age in Wiltshire. Moreover, he was proud of and always insisted upon his family's Cornish heritage. He thought of himself as a Celt.

Ultimately, of course, it's far too glib to say that Tippett's music is "open" or "fresh" or "candid". What's important (and much more difficult) is to try to explain how it is those things, and why.

In many ways, Tippett's compositional technique - like his conducting technique - was home-spun. That's not to say he lacked a musician's education, though he was always an unconventional pupil. He attended the Royal College of Music where he studied composition with Charles Wood (who had taught Vaughan Williams), and after Wood's death, almost as though Tippett himself knew his technique needed bolstering, he took lessons from the decidedly conservative harmony teacher, C H Kitson. The end product of all this was a young composer whose music we would not recognise today. All that formal training had failed to unearth Tippett's real voice, and after a concert in 1930 at which his major works to date were performed, Tippett decided he must start again.

In his late twenties, he signed up for lessons with the contrapuntalist R O Morris. It might have been an act of desperation, but it was a wise move. Tippett's best music would always be distinctively contrapuntal, and his lessons with Morris seem to have kick-started something. Finally, at the age of 30, the composer produced his String Quartet No 1. In it - seemingly overnight - there appeared most of the recognisable characteristics of his mature style: the elaborate counterpoint, the rhythmic verve, the lyricism, the rather modal, folk-like use of harmony, and a flair for the grand gesture. Very clearly it was hard won - there were moments of awkwardness amid the exuberance - and that too would remain a hallmark of his music.

Unlike his friend and contemporary Benjamin Britten, Tippett was never especially fluent. But he was every bit as musical and, I think, more original. Much of the perceived difficulty of his scores for players - sometimes regarded by them as a lack of professionalism - was, as much as anything, the result of Tippett's fondness for irrational rhythms and long lines. He was a melodist, wanting his lines to go on and on. And so they do, tripping across the bar lines, stressing the "wrong" beats, frequently at odds with the conductor's three or four in a bar. Playing this music is a balancing act. Done well - with the confidence of an Australian teenager - it sounds nearly effortless, but any hint of doubt among the players can bring the whole thing crashing down. In 1958, the first performance of his second symphony fell apart and had to be restarted.

Of course, in the best and truest sense of the word, Tippett was indeed an amateur. He loved music - a lot of different sorts of music (from Beethoven to Bessie Smith) - and for all its distinction and originality, his own work was in constant dialogue with other music, often inviting it in. This was part of that openness. There are lots of examples, most famous of all the five spirituals in A Child of Our Time. Although it's a wartime piece, the oratorio is really a response to the violence in Germany in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two. Tippett began work on it the day after war was declared.

The composer keenly felt his place in society ("whether society has felt music valuable or needful") and that his job was to speak, as far as possible, on behalf of a "collective unconscious". So, he reasoned, his oratorio required music that came from that same place, music that his audience would know. When Bach had composed his Passions (models of sorts for A Child of Our Time), he had included Lutheran hymns for this very purpose. Tippett thought that the mid-20th century equivalent of those hymns might be American spirituals, and so he imported five of them into his piece.

Far from being the musical "patches" this might suggest, they are absolutely vital to the success of the oratorio; they hold it together. And they are successful because they are so seamlessly woven into the piece. In part one, "Steal Away" creeps in beneath a long-held soprano note without disturbing the musical flow, while at the very end, the first note of "Deep River" arrives as the simple, inevitable resolution of the previous five minutes of ecstatically hopeful singing. It is not the mere presence of the spirituals that is so moving here; it is what Tippett did with them, and how he made them - for the duration of the piece - his own.

These appropriations are everywhere in Tippett, from the folk song "Ca' the Yowes" in his first piano sonata (1937), to "Auld Lang Syne" in New Year (1988), his final opera. Another particularly successful instance is the moment in his third opera, The Knot Garden (1970), where the African American homosexual Mel sings a duet with the disfigured freedom fighter, Denise, which turns momentarily into "We Shall Overcome". On paper, it looks like an appallingly ham-fisted idea, but it's actually rather subtle. Again, the tune creeps in - it's half over before we really notice it (when Mel finds himself singing the words "Oh, deep in my heart") - and again its success is a matter of what Tippett brings to it, this time high violins that beautifully stretch the tonality of the familiar song.

But if Tippett's love of other music produced many of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful moments in his work, it also led him into that vale of tears which is artistic "relevance". I will be so unfashionable as to suggest that great art is always relevant, whereas bad art is always irrelevant. I don't imagine Tippett would have disagreed; after all, he esteemed the music of Beethoven more highly than anything. But partly in his eclecticism and partly in his desire to seem trendy, his music would sometimes lurch into archness.

Most obviously this affected his opera librettos, which he always wrote himself. In his fourth opera, The Ice Break (1977), the many musical felicities can easily be overwhelmed by a text that relies on what sounds like warmed-over lines from old episodes of Kojak. Tippett sought out what he considered up-to-the-minute American slang for this opera ("What's bugging you, man?/ Cool and jivey once;/ Now touchy and tight./ You're a drag, Hanna's with it!"), though by the time it reached the stage of the Royal Opera House some of it was already out of date. (One doubts they noticed in the Crush bar.)

The other side of Tippett's openness and candour was its inclusiveness, which is a fine quality if it is discriminating. In his later pieces - really from The Knot Garden on - popular music forms recur with some frequency, and Tippett didn't always understand them well. You felt as though he was dragging those boogie-woogie bass lines and electric guitars lines into his music without first making them his own (as he had the spirituals in A Child of Our Time). Perhaps he was to some degree seduced by his growing fame in the United States. He was certainly drawn to what he recognised in Americans as their openness and candour. The last time I met him, he told me this is what he liked about Australia too. But I wonder if in courting these new audiences, he allowed some of his own candour to slip away. There was a tendency, in his last pieces, towards unwitting self-parody. And the yellow pants didn't quite compensate.

I met Tippett three times, and liked him enormously. On the first occasion, still living in England, I was an undergraduate at Lancaster University's music department, and Tippett visited for a week-long residency in 1977, during which he collected an honorary degree. He gave me perhaps the single most useful piece of advice I ever received from another composer. I told him about my latest piece of which I was rather proud. It was a stupidly overworked 12-tone double canon that had taken me all term to write from an elaborate set of charts. Tippett said, "Just use your ears, love." He called everyone love.

The second time, in 1984, he came to the university in NSW, where I was teaching, and afterwards I drove him to Sydney. It was night time and he was a nervous passenger, not I think because of my driving but because of something to do with his poor eyesight and the flashing headlights of the oncoming cars. He sat flinching in the passenger seat for most of the journey. The last time I met him, I interviewed him in a Brisbane hotel room during his final visit to Australia in 1990. By the end of that meeting, I felt I knew him very well.

Now let it be said immediately that Tippett would not have known me from a bar of soap. He was always meeting people, and he had no reason to remember my name or my face. Yet I felt close to him (and still do) and I am sure there must be hundreds of other people around the world who, after similarly brief meetings, also felt they knew Tippett well and continue to feel close to him. Tippett was that sort of person - the sort of person Britten wasn't - who let one look right inside him. His best music is exactly the same.

Will it last? That's the question one is meant to ask on occasions such as centenaries. Will we all be back celebrating his 150th birthday with similar gusto?

A Child of Our Time will surely live on. So will the Double Concerto and the Fantasia Concertante. They're already repertoire pieces. I think the string quartets are very fine and certainly deserve to live. The operas are more problematic, but The Knot Garden appears to have been given a new lease of life in Britain this year, while the "Ritual Dances" from his first opera The Midsummer Marriage (staged at the Royal Opera House this autumn) will surely remain, even if the oddness of its sub-Jungian plot rules out a permanent place for the opera itself.

What is not speculation is the uniqueness of Tippett's music. You would never mistake a piece by him for the work of another composer. That degree of individuality is pretty rare, and often makes itself indispensable. For me, at least, there are times when only Tippett's music will do. m

'The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett', ed Thomas Schuttenhelm, will be published by Faber in September (£25). 'The Midsummer Marriage': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), 31 October to 18 November

Pick of the Proms

Prom 1

Sir Roger Norrington conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme which includes Tippett's A Child of Our Time, with soloists Ian Bostridge, Christine Rice, Indra Thomas and Sir Willard White. 15 July, 7pm

Prom 4

This year's hot ticket: Placido Domingo and Bryn Terfel star in the Royal Opera's production of Wagner's Die Walküre, conducted by Antonio Pappano. 18 July, 5pm

Prom 26

A cool double-bill: to celebrate the 80th birthday of the late Luciano Berio, his choral masterpiece Coro is paired with Kleine Dreigroschenmusik by Kurt Weill (right). 2 August, 10pm

Prom 27

A rare London appearance by the veteran sitar guru Ravi Shankar (below), joined here by his daughter Anoushka for a programme which includes Shankar's Sitar Concerto No 1 and Param Vir's Horse Tooth White Rock. 3 August, 7.30pm

Prom 32

Dreadlocked vocal star Bobby McFerrin presents an afternoon of songs and fun with the African Children's Choir. 7 August, 4pm

Prom 38

Bring your hanky: Thomas Dausgaard conducts the world premiere of Bent Sorensen's operatic re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid.

12 August, 7.30pm

Prom 52

A semi-staged performance of David McVicar's new Glyndebourne production of Handel's Julius Caesar, with Sarah Connolly as Caesar and Angelika Kirchschlager as Sextus. William Christie conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. 23 August, 6pm

Prom 63

Mariss Jansons conducts Mahler's mournful and massive Symphony No 6, played by Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw, an orchestra whose relationship with Mahler dates back to concerts conducted by the man himself. 1 September, 7pm

Prom 69

Thomas Adès conducts the UK premiere of his Violin Concerto in a programme which includes Stravinsky's Pulcinella suite and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B flat major. 6 September, 7pm

Prom 74

This year's last night has a sea theme: treats include counter tenor Andreas Scholl's selections from Handel's Xerxes and Purcell's King Arthur. Paul Daniel conducts. 10 September, 7.30pm

BBC Proms: Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212), 15 July to 10 September