There was nothing, either in Michael Tippett’s childhood or in his first musical works, to show that he would eventually become one of the greatest British composers.
Born in London in 1905, Michael Tippett was raised in Suffolk, his childhood largely overtaken by a hideous time at boarding school during the First World War and by his mother’s over-arching dedication to the women’s suffrage movement. It was an innate sense that he should respond creatively to global events, rather than any natural musical talent, that led to his studying at the Royal College of Music.
His twenties and thirties were dedicated to compositions, now withdrawn, that he later decided were weakened by lack of originality and a dedication to left-wing politics. Aghast at the Great Depression and the threat of fascism, Tippett initially dedicated much of his time to political endeavours, not least major musical projects formed to boost the morale of unemployed miners in the north of England. He quickly rejected the Stalinist interpretation of Marxism as exemplified by the Communist Party of Great Britain, believing instead, with a temporarily violent favour, in Leon Trotsky’s advocation of perpetual worldwide revolution.
A break-down of a major love affair and a subsequent period of Jungian therapy coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War, leading Tippett to reject violence of any persuasion – Trotskyian, Hitlerian, Churchillian – and devote the rest of his life to an ardent and absolute pacifism. Not entirely coincidentally, his musical voice finally settled into maturity and invention. By the end of the war he had produced a clutch of powerful works, characterised by imaginative counterpoint and a characteristically eclectic list of influences from Beethoven to blues, that remain some of his most lasting: two string quartets, a symphony, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, and the oratorio A Child of Our Time.
These achievements are the more remarkable in that they emerged from the (literal) trials of Tippett’s wartime life. He registered as a conscientious objector, and refusal to comply with the terms of his exemption from military service led to his serving two months in HMP Wormwood Scrubs. His sentence interrupted his tenure as director of music at Morley College in South London, where he led a department of historic importance: his innovative concert series at the college programmed European premieres alongside then-neglected works and composers from the Baroque and Renaissance.
The post-war years Tippett dedicated to the lushly-orchestrated lyricism of his first mature opera, The Midsummer Marriage, and its satellite works, chief among them his piano concerto, and the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli. Critical reception was either politely perplexed or openly hostile, an attitude only exacerbated by the breakdown of his second symphony at its first performance. Undeterred, Tippett reinvented himself musically with his second opera, King Priam (a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad), splintering the orchestra into a jagged mosaic of juxtaposed motifs, alternately harsh and lyrical. Praise of King Priam and the works it gave rise to (The Vision of Saint Augustine and a concerto for orchestra) coincided with a reappraisal of earlier pieces to cement Tippett’s reputation as one of the country’s leading composers. The one-time Trotskyist shot up the establishment ladder, cheerfully accepting a knighthood, among other honours. Operas three and four – The Knot Garden and The Ice Break – were rapturously reviewed, younger audiences thrilling to the now septuagenarian Tippett’s grappling with 20th-century life in a soundworld that was now fizzing with jazz and blues, the orchestra pit augmented with electric guitars and a drum kit.
Tippett enjoyed a mainly vigorous old age, his last 20 years characterised by continual self-reinvention and a series of orchestral masterpieces that reintroduced into his work a lyricism some thought had gone for good: a further two symphonies, the Triple Concerto, and a final blaze of instrumental colour in The Rose Lake, a ‘song without words for orchestra’. His love of travel bolstered global acclaim.
His honorary presidency of the Peace Pledge Union was lifelong, but Tippett’s active political engagement eventually dissolved almost entirely in the face of his dedication to music. This dedication did little to help the continuing difficulties of his private life, which was caught between Platonic relationships with beloved women friends (the closest of whom drowned herself at the end of war), and passionate, often overlapping, affairs with men that ended in quarrel and recrimination (his partner Karl Hawker committed suicide some years after their split). By his and the century’s 70s he had settled into a lasting relationship with the music writer Meirion Bowen, though continued to live alone in the Wiltshire countryside. A fifth and final opera, New Year, which contained rap and reggae, was poorly reviewed and remains unrecorded, but it did little to stop the obituaries proclaiming, when Tippett died (in January 1998, aged 93), a composer to rank alongside Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Britten. Centenary overkill followed hard on the heels of funereal tributes, and he fell speedily from fashion, a situation exacerbated by the financial disarray of his estate, a result of his life-long generosity and the need for full-time healthcare in his final years.
Tippett was a composer of risk and originality; his imagination often ran ahead of performers, audiences, and critics. Many of his early works, once dismissed, are now thought masterpieces. His later output has begun to receive a similar reappraisal, which may yet prove that his music, while never entirely eschewing the British tradition, is more fruitfully comparable to the work of his international contemporaries such as Messiaen, Lutosławski, or Berio. The advocacy of conductors such as Edward Gardner, Martyn Brabbins, and Simon Rattle, while not restoring Tippett to his former glory, has nevertheless assured that he will continue to be appraised, in musicologist Ian Kemp’s words, as “one of the giants of the century”.
© Oliver Soden
Further information about the life of Michael Tippett can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Oliver Soden
- Music and words, Musical style, Music, politics and society, Music and modernism
Oliver Soden discusses the historical context and inspiration behind Michael Tippett’s famous ‘modern oratorio’ A Child of our Time.