Obituary: Sir Michael Tippett
Saturday 10 January 1998
Michael Tippett died as one of the greatest English composers since Elgar, but the high artistic success he enjoyed was hard-won and long delayed.
He began without a conspicuous excess of natural musical talent. At the Royal College of Music in the 1920s he struggled to gain his degree and master the techniques of composition. He returned there in the early Thirties for further study and, guided in the art of counterpoint by R.O. Morris, finally acquired the skill necessary to speak with a voice of his own.
That it would be a very distinctive voice was apparent from the First String Quartet (1935), though a Symphony in B flat (predating the Symphony No 1) written at this time was withdrawn by the composer along with his earlier pieces. The First Piano Sonata (1937) marked a step towards full creative confidence, which was gloriously achieved by the next opus, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939) - still Tippett's most frequently played work.
With the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1941) - a deeply affecting work and an ingenious recasting of the baroque passion, substituting negro spirituals for Lutheran chorales - Tippett's reputation was firmly established, at home and abroad. It was the first of a series of some eight major canvases - oratorios or operas - which divide the artist's career into significant stages.
Tippett was a slow, infinitely meditative worker, and preferred to concentrate his energies on large works - their composition sometimes protracted over very long periods - on which smaller ones would draw for material, rather than busy himself with a plethora of incidental commissions (but his "occasional" music, such as the Divertimento on Sellinger's Round and the Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles, is none the less exquisite). He wrote no film music.
His smaller-scale works are like satellites of the planetary large ones. The Concerto for Double String Orchestra stands in a similar relation to A Child of Our Time (both leanly contrapuntal) as the string Fantasia Concertante on a Theme by Corelli (1953) to the vastly lyrical first opera The Midsummer Marriage (1952), or the mosaic-like Second Piano Sonata (1962) to the anti-symphonic and Brecht-influenced second opera King Priam (1958).
Tippett learnt early on how to hold himself spiritually open to the dawning possibility of a big new work, and how to live with the long-term physical isolation and continuous mental planning then required of him. The discipline he achieved served him to the end: he could gestate and triumphantly realise his most ambitious work since Midsummer Marriage - The Mask of Time, a special sort of oratorio - when he was nearly 80, and go on to create the opera New Year (as well as a fifth string quartet, the scena Byzantium and tone-poem The Rose Lake), in spite of previously having considered his operatic oeuvre complete with his fourth essay in the medium, The Ice Break of 1976.
The third opera, The Knot Garden (1966-70), is the work in which he disclosed the most autobiographically. It was written at a time when his personal relations had reached a peak of bitterness and severity; as an attempt to confront both his own emotional disorders and those of the age (the Sixties) it is equally agonised and brave. The composer was soon to enjoy an increased emotional and domestic stability (though he always lived alone), but the vision informing his later works is rarely free from scepticism and misgiving.
The affirmative strain - consistently what has mattered most to Tippett - mainly survives in these works as a beautiful impossible dream, an artistic experience at best zany and parenthetical: The Ice Break and the Triple Concerto of 1979 look wryly back on Tippett's own earlier music and its lyrical positives; The Mask of Time paints a picture of man's evolutionary history that is festooned with ambiguity, and its darker shades perhaps predominate in the memory. The work is far removed in complexion and mood from the earlier oratorio on the subject of time, The Vision of St Augustine (1965): 35 minutes of coruscating intensity, a musical epiphany, and some would claim Tippett's greatest work.
Tippett's composing career burgeoned enormously in the Sixties, when the British musical establishment seemed at last able to drop its various prejudices against him as an obscurantist (a charge invariably levelled against his librettos, which were always written by himself), a lover of complexity (for a long time his scores were deemed impracticable, even amateurish), an intellectual, and a pacifist (he went to Wormwood Scrubs as a conscientious objector during the Second World War).
King Priam was a prestigious commission to celebrate the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, and the following year a BBC studio recording (under Norman del Mar) of The Midsummer Marriage made an immense impression on listeners, particularly younger ones. It was becoming obvious that Tippett was a genius among us, a truly inspired figure, a consummate maker of images who had the absolute gift (as he himself once defined it) "of knowing what ensemble is, of knowing what the sounds, the colours are going to be to an extraordinary degree". After Britten's death in 1976, he was self-evidently the country's leading composer.
He was knighted in 1966; in 1979 he became a Companion of Honour, and in 1983 joined the Order of Merit. The Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society came in 1976. From 1959 he was President of the Peace Pledge Union. On the sale of many of his manuscripts to the British Library in 1979 he endowed the Michael Tippett Musical Foundation, a body which has greatly assisted young musicians and new ventures. Apart from his compositional success, Tippett developed a certain reputation as an impassioned if rather wayward conductor, usually of his own music, but occasionally and memorably of Elgar's.
Michael Tippett was one of the most personally sensitive and intellectually responsive men I have ever met - generous and exuberant and open-hearted. His was essentially a lucky life; he lived to see every thing he had done vindicated and applauded. Embarrassments and doubts regularly provoked by his new works soon enough fell away, leaving the latter free to sit by the old, in what now seems like a pure constellation.
- Paul Driver
Michael Tippett was a composer of our time, a maverick - as he liked to say - with rare intellectual depth and social conscience, writes David Revill. His was a century "deeply scarred by wars, revolution and other turmoil, in the course of which I've tried to communicate through music some alternative humane values".
Tippett was born in January 1905. His father, a lawyer, retired early thanks to a knack for investment. "I loved my father," Tippett recalled. "He was a card, full of quips and jokes that appealed to us children." His mother dedicated herself to "campaigning for women's rights and helping to bring succour to the needy".
Young Tippett arrived at preparatory school, just before the Great War, with an essay which logically demonstrated the non-existence of God. When, aged 13, he arrived at Fettes College in Edinburgh on a scholarship, he refused to join the cadets on moral grounds.
As a child, he was isolated from the centres of music- making. When he first heard the Mother Goose suite of Ravel, he felt an overwhelming urge to be a composer, although his headmaster averred that music could never "pay for a boiled egg, let alone a boiled shirt". His parents chanced to meet a musician on a train, who suggested that he study at the Royal College of Music. They agreed to pay his fees provided he take a doctorate in composition; he began his studies in 1923.
Thinking carefully, as he did throughout his career, he decided not to pursue lessons with Vaughan Williams because he saw the dangers of becoming an imitator. His ambitions were grand but his knowledge slight. Tippett caught up on repertoire by attending concerts. He went to plays - discovering Chekhov, Strindberg and above all Shaw - and read voraciously. This began a habit of being informed and inspired by ideas which ran against the grain of mid-century English musical life. There was an assumption at the Royal College that a composer was "a person of sensibility, but not of intellect", in Tippett's characterisation, "which seemed nonsense". He felt, in the years which followed, that his rejection of this division held back his career.
After leaving the college, he moved to Oxted in Surrey, teaching French in the local preparatory school. Tippett promised himself that everything he did would take second place to composition. He kept his teaching to a minimum, and rejected any opportunity for further work which he felt would take too much time. The result of this commitment was that he lived close to subsistence level.
In 1930, Tippett presented the first concert of his own pieces. Dissatisfied with the result, he withdrew them and signed up for lessons with R.O. Morris, author of the classic English work on counterpoint.
Although he had an "extremely tender" relationship with a young woman, Francesca Allinson, his basic interest was in men, and at the time this caused him some psychological stress. He consulted a Jungian, in due course continuing through self-analysis. This helped him compose - seeking artistic truth "in the depths of the psyche where god-and- devil images also hibernate" - and he felt that composing, in turn, made him whole, reconciled, in Jungian terms, to the shade and light within himself. He tried to convey this insight in his music. To become whole, one must become aware of the divided nature of the psyche. This was, he wrote, "the only truth I shall ever say".
In a newsreel, Tippett saw endless rows of little crosses in the Flanders graveyards. "So this is what happened to all those young men I heard in my teens singing cheerful songs like `Tipperary'," he realised. "I knew I must work towards a climate in which repetition of such brutalities would never be accepted."
In the months before the outbreak of war, Tippett was planning an opera on the Dublin Easter uprising. This gave way to the oratorio project A Child of Our Time. His music was partly inspired by negro spirituals; after hearing "Steal Away", Tippett had an anthology sent from the States, and found that "they contained words and tunes for every dramatic or religious situation that could be imagined".
Tippett was patronised - in both senses, he implied - by Edith Sitwell and her brothers, and they introduced him to T.S. Eliot. Tippett asked Eliot to write the libretto for Child. The poet suggested he would be better served writing it himself, which inaugurated Tippett's habit of writing texts for his own music.
"I knew even then that A Child of Our Time was the turning-point in my compositional output," wrote Tippett, "both in terms of technique and subject matter." It made his name, and, like most successful works, it received many interpretations over the years Deep South blacks saw their plight reflected, and an Aids specialist in the Eighties wrote to explain how he felt it related to his patients.
In 1940, Tippett was appointed Director of Music at Morley College, a post he held for 11 years. He invited numerous significant figures, many of whom were refugees from Europe. It was at Morley that he first met Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, quickly becoming close to both.
During the Second World War, he registered as a conscientious objector, and was assigned non-combatant military duties, which he refused. He was taken to Wormwood Scrubs, handcuffed to a deserter; in the adjoining cell were a rapist and a murderer. His mother subsequently described his imprisonment as her "proudest moment".
After the war, Tippett began presenting radio talks, which provided a modest secondary income; in time he edited and published some of them as Moving into Aquarius (1959). Between 1947 and 1952, he worked on The Midsummer Marriage, his first opera; as for Child, he wrote the text. Its story of a betrothed couple and their journey towards self-knowledge was "written in an extreme polarity to the cultural and social pressures of its period", a life-affirming work for the post-Hiroshima period. It was a "brilliant failure", and several of the works which followed ran into trouble: the first soloist for the Piano Concerto (1953-55) declared it unplayable, and the premiere of the Second Symphony (1956-57) broke down after only a few pages.
Tippett's fortunes improved in the Sixties. King Priam was produced with great success by the film-maker Sam Wanamaker as part of the celebrations for the new Coventry Cathedral. In 1965 Tippett made his first visit to America as guest composer at the festival in Aspen, Colorado, and conducting invitations blossomed after he substituted for Stravinsky in a 1968 concert. It was eventually in the United States that his music became most popular.
In the early Seventies, a heart irregularity was diagnosed. Once this was controlled by drugs, he remained otherwise healthy for years, taking long walks and continuing to travel. In 1978 he took his first extended break from composition in half a century to make a world tour, combining holidays with professional appearances. By the end of the decade, Tippett was the grand old man of British music.
"If, in the music I write, I can create a world of sound wherein some of my generation can find refreshment for the inner life, then I am doing my work properly," said Tippett. "I have to sing songs for those who can't sing for themselves. Those songs come from the torments and horrors that have happened. I can't lose faith in humanity."
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