In his long career he produced a large body of work, including five operas, three large-scale choral works, four symphonies, five string quartets, four piano sonatas, concertos and concertante works, song cycles and incidental music. The works for which he is best known are the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the oratorio A Child of Our Time and the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli.
His deeply held humanitarian and pacifist beliefs shaped both his life and his music: he served a prison sentence as a conscientious objector in the Second World War. An interest in many aspects of contemporary culture is reflected in his music and writings. Tippett was one of the first openly gay composers to explore issues of sexuality in his work. The libretti of his operas, which he wrote himself, attracted criticism for their allusion-heavy complexity, and sometimes awkward and not quite idiomatic use of contemporary slang, but have also received praise from, amongst others, noted music critic Andrew Porter, the director Peter Hall and conductor Colin Davis. Tippett had a keen interest in musical education and in later life was active as a broadcaster and lecturer. As a conductor he recorded many of his own works, as well as making an early recording of Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet Spem in Alium. He is generally acknowledged to be one of the most important British composers of the 20th century.
Tippett was born in London in 1905, the younger of two boys. His father, Henry William Tippett (1858–1944), came from an old Cornish family. A lawyer and entrepreneur, his investments included the Lyceum Theatre, London and a hotel in Cannes, France. His mother, Isabel Clementina Binny Kemp (1880–1969) trained as a nurse. She was a novelist and playwright, a member of the Labour Party and a suffragette who went to prison for her beliefs.
In the year of his birth, the family moved to Wetherden in rural Suffolk. He had a happy and active childhood, enjoying home theatricals and singing in the church choir. From an early age he showed an aptitude for music. Despite their liberal views his parents knew little about music as a profession and were bemused when, aged ten, he told them that he wanted to become a composer. At preparatory school in Dorset he wrote an essay disproving the existence of God. He was sent to Fettes College in Edinburgh, which he hated. After he admitted an affair with another boy, his parents removed Tippett from the school. The remaining years of his school education were at Stamford School in Lincolnshire. Here he flourished, learning piano and harmony with Frances Tinkler, a dedicated and supportive mentor. His first experience of modern music was hearing Ravel's Mother Goose suite at a concert in Leicester conducted by Malcolm Sargent. From that moment on, he knew he had to be a composer.
Financial difficulties after the First World War forced his parents to sell their home and live in the Cannes hotel. In time this too was sold and the family lived an unsettled existence moving around Europe. Tippett spent vacations with them, learning French and Italian and acquiring at an early age an easy familiarity with European people and manners. At school Tippett's atheism and general rebelliousness prompted the headmaster to ask that he be removed to lodgings in the town, out of bounds to the other boys. In the meantime he bought a copy of Stanford's Musical Composition, and set about teaching himself to compose. A chance encounter with a musician on a train led to an interview with the Principal of the Royal College of Music in London. Tippett was accepted, despite his lack of musical knowledge. His parents agreed to pay his fees on condition that he aim to become a Doctor of Music, and in the summer of 1923 he began studies at the RCM.
London opened up a new world of musical and social opportunity for Tippett. He hungrily absorbed all that the capital had to offer, from Beethoven symphonies at the Proms, to Palestrina masses at Westminster Cathedral, to Mozart operas at the Old Vic. Through new friends he was able to pursue his interest in theatre.
Tippett's first composition tutor was Charles Wood, who used the works of the established masters – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – as models, stressing the importance of a solid understanding of musical forms and syntax. Tippett had always felt that he lacked a secure technique and welcomed this rigorous approach. When Wood died, he decided not to study with Vaughan Williams, then a member of the RCM teaching staff. Rather than become a mere imitator of the great man, he chose instead a pedantic teacher, Dr C. H. Kitson. The relationship between teacher and pupil was at times strained. Kitson's teaching was harmony-based, and Tippett's natural style was contrapuntal. He persevered, however, and after four years had built the foundations of a solid compositional technique. His piano studies with Aubin Raymar were less successful, but from Malcolm Sargent and Adrian Boult he learned a working knowledge of the orchestra and conducting. He graduated in 1928 after failing the exams at the first attempt.
Tippett did not stay long in London. An invitation to conduct a concert and operatic society in Oxted, Surrey entailed a move back to the rural environment that he knew and loved. Exciting as London had been, he needed space and quiet to compose. In 1929 he rented a small cottage on the North Downs, formed a madrigal group and took up a teaching post at a local school. With help from his father, he was able to build a bungalow at nearby Limpsfield. At the local Barn Theatre Tippett undertook productions of a number of stage works, including his own version of the 18th century ballad opera The Village Opera. He conducted two complete performances of Handel's Messiah, a rare event at the time. Having loved the stage since his schooldays, he relished the opportunity to improve his knowledge of stagecraft and to study the challenges of word setting in the different disciplines of opera and oratorio.
Tippett's own music began to feature in the Oxted programmes, and in April 1930 a concert took place consisting entirely of his own compositions. Though favourably received by the press – The Times described his music as having "a personal distinction and sincerity which is absent from the work of the Central European composers of today" – the experience convinced Tippett that he still lacked a watertight technique. He withdrew the pieces and arranged further study with R. O. Morris, an expert on 16th century polyphony who had already taught Tippett at the RCM. A rigorous training ensued, during which he learned to write fugues in the style of Bach. These eighteen months were probably the most formative in the composer's life. Under Morris's guidance he finally achieved the mastery of counterpoint that had long been his goal.
Tippett accepted his homosexuality from an early age, but felt disturbed by a feeling of exclusion from 'normal life': "[B]eing unable to enter into a biological relationship with a woman, it seemed that I was excluded from an understanding of half the human race." He was also keenly aware of parental disapproval of his sexuality. With his good looks, charm and charisma, Tippett was a magnet for both men and women. He had a number of intense, emotional friendships with women, some of whom undoubtedly wanted more. One such was Evelyn Maude, an amateur cellist with whom he had a close, supportive friendship. Deeply in love with Tippett, her role was that of confidante, almost like an elder sister. Equally intense was his friendship with Francesca Allinson, a musician and musicologist. At one time they contemplated adopting children. Her suicide at the end of World War II affected him profoundly. But it was a young painter, Wilfred Franks, who inspired the composer's first real love experience. In Tippett's own words, his relationship with Franks was "the deepest, most shattering experience of falling in love", and "a major factor underlying the discovery of my own individual musical 'voice'. "
While hiking with Franks in the North, Tippett was horrified by the sight of under-nourished children. The experience convinced him that "somewhere music could have a direct relation also to the compassion that was so deep in my heart". From then on, he sought to combine music-making with political action. He gave up the school teaching job and took on the conductorship of a number of amateur choirs. At a concert in London's East End he encouraged choir members to bring food for the audience as well as for themselves. Through his friend David Ayerst, Tippett went to work at experimental farms for the unemployed in Yorkshire. There he mounted a special version of The Beggar's Opera for local people to perform. Its success led to the composition of a new work: the ballad opera Robin Hood. Although never published, Tippett reworked some of the material in his 1948 Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles. He began to conduct the South London Orchestra, made up largely of theatre musicians made redundant by the arrival of the 'talkies'. Through Francesca Allinson he met the Marxist composer Alan Bush, who was the conductor of the London Labour Choral Union.Tippett conducted the orchestra at the Pageant of Labour at the Crystal Palace on 15–20 October 1934.
Tippett's political leanings reflected his love of personal freedom and dislike of oppressive authority. Thus he embraced Trotsky's internationalism over Stalin's rigidly controlled and centralised state. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, but left after failing to subvert it to Trotskyism. In 1935 Tippett wrote an agitprop play, War Ramp, about the role of public credit in the financing of war. Although the logic of the play's argument seemed to lead to the advocacy of violent revolution, he rejected this. By gradual stages, he was drawn to pacifism. Faced with the twin evils of Nazism and Stalin's labour camps,[n 1] he became one of 100,000 people to take up the pledge of the Rev. Dick Sheppard: 'I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I support or sanction another.' The result was the Peace Pledge Union. Tippett became a prominent member and eventually its president. One of his last public acts was to unveil the Commemorative Stone to Conscientious Objectors in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, London, on 15 May 1994, International Conscientious Objectors' Day.
In December 1935 the Brosa Quartet gave the first performance of Tippett's String Quartet in A, his first acknowledged work. Although he later replaced the opening two movements with a single one, the music bears all the hallmarks of his mature style. A symphony in B-flat from the same year was performed but later withdrawn. The quartet was followed by the First Piano Sonata, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the Fantasia on a Theme of Handel and the oratorio A Child of Our Time.
The period leading up to the composition of this, Tippett's first major work and the one for which he is still best known, was one of turmoil for the composer. He went through an acute emotional crisis after Franks announced his plans to marry, and turned to Jungian self-analysis. For nine months Tippett wrote down all his dreams, stopping three days before the outbreak of the Second World War. His final recorded dream, in which he imagined he was strangled by four men, seemed to him a sign of impending rebirth. On the day war was declared, 3 September 1939, Tippett began to write the music for A Child of Our Time. Tippett had originally conceived the idea of an opera based on the Irish Easter Rising of 1916. But an event occurred that provided him with a scenario ideally fitted to his conception of a work both contemporary and in the grand choral tradition of Bach's Passions and Handel's Messiah. The 1938 shooting of a German diplomat by a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, led directly to the worst anti-Jewish pogrom of the pre-war years, culminating in the events of Kristallnacht on 9 November when thousands of Jewish homes, shops and premises in Germany and Austria were ransacked and burned. Tippett shared in the widespread public horror and felt impelled to respond.
A few years previously he had formed a friendship with the poet and playwright T. S. Eliot. Eliot was to be one of the most influential figures in his professional life, and Tippett often described him as his "spiritual father". Of particular importance was the older man's advice on the relationship between words and music and the problems involved in setting texts. Tippett asked Eliot to write the libretto for his new oratorio, but the poet refused, feeling that Tippett had already written a major part and that his contribution would compete with the music for attention. A Child of Our Time was completed in 1941 but not performed until 1944. During this time Tippett was steadily gaining critical recognition for his work. Though he had few performances of his music, and the BBC, the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival and the publishers Boosey & Hawkes all turned down the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (later to be one of his most popular works), a private recording of the First Piano Sonata by Phyllis Sellick attracted favourable reviews. William Glock, writing in The Observer, hailed it and the recently premiered Second String Quartet by announcing that "A new composer has emerged in English music", The publishers Schott agreed to publish the Piano Sonata and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. They remained Tippett's publishers for the rest of his life.
Tippett was invited in 1940 to become the director of music at Morley College in South London. In the eleven years of his tenure the choir grew from 10 to nearly 50. Tippett appointed a number of former refugees to his staff including the composer Mátyás Seiber, the conductor Walter Goehr and three of the future members of the Amadeus Quartet. He brought the countertenor Alfred Deller from Canterbury Cathedral to sing solos in Purcell odes, gave performances of Monteverdi's Vespers (1610) and Stravinsky's Les noces, and recorded Tallis's 40-part motet Spem in alium.
Tippett's pacifism led him to issue a statement rejecting war and affirming the right of artists not to be conscripted. He registered as a conscientious objector, but refused to accept a condition that would have required his giving up his work at Morley College. His friends and admirers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, tried to dissuade him but he stood firm. In June 1943 Tippett was sentenced to three months imprisonment at Wormwood Scrubs. His immediate cell neighbours were a rapist and a murderer. He sewed mailbags, studied Bach's The Art of Fugue and assisted the small prison orchestra. When he was released he felt he had "come home". For his mother it was her "proudest moment".
In 1943 Tippett met Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. He invited them to perform at Morley College and they stayed at his home at Oxted. The cantata Boyhood's End, composed for Britten and Pears, reflected a common interest in Purcell. When Tippett showed him the score of A Child of Our Time Britten was enthusiastic about the work and urged him to get it performed. The premiere took place on 19 March 1944 at Adelphi Theatre. Pears was one of the soloists and Goehr conducted. The reaction of the critics was mostly favourable. Glock, writing in The Observer, declared it "the most moving and important work written by an English musician for many years". Performances in Europe followed and made a profound impact.
Two major works followed the success of A Child of Our Time. The First Symphony was given its first performance in 1945, conducted by Sargent, while the Third Quartet was premiered in 1946 by the Zorian Quartet. Tippett was meanwhile planning what was to be his biggest and most personal statement to date, the opera The Midsummer Marriage. Uncommissioned, it took six years to write and placed severe physical and emotional demands on its composer. The libretto was Tippett's own. Other works from this period are the Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles, commissioned in 1948 by the BBC, the song-cycle The Heart's Assurance, written in memory of Francesca Allinson and first performed in 1951 by Britten and Pears, and the 1953 Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli. Now one of Tippett's most popular and frequently performed works, it attracted criticism at the time. Sargent refused to conduct the first performance as he thought it overburdened with notes. He told Tippett's publisher Howard Hartog that his "one interest" was "removing all this intellectualism from English music". The Times thought it too complex and difficult to listen to: "The excessive complexity of the contrapuntal writing in the earlier part of the work defeated its own ends; there was so much going on that the perplexed ear knew not where to turn or fasten itself."
Denigration of Tippett reached a climax with the first production of The Midsummer Marriage at Covent Garden in 1955. Many of the critics attacked the libretto as obscure or even incomprehensible. It was claimed that the cast were in confusion about the plot.[n 2] The music, however, was more warmly received. Subsequent productions and recordings have won the opera widespread admiration: the 1968 LP recording sold 3,750 copies in its first week of sale in the United States.
Controversy also surrounded the premieres of two other major works of the 1950s, the Piano Concerto (1955) and the Second Symphony (1957). The concerto was declared unplayable by its appointed soloist, Julius Katchen, and he was replaced by Louis Kentner. The Symphony's premiere was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, at the Royal Festival Hall on 5 February 1958, conducted by Adrian Boult. Neither was regarded as ideal for the work. In the 1930s, the early years of the BBCSO, it had been regarded as one of the best orchestras in the country, and Boult as a superb conductor; they were renowned in particular for their performances of new music. Post-war, however, the BBCSO was generally agreed to have declined in quality, and in particular to be less adept in new music. Boult, meanwhile, was now approaching 70, and becoming conservative in his repertoire; he had been far down the list of preferred conductors for the evening. At the premiere, broadcast live on BBC radio, the performance broke down a few minutes into the first movement and had to be restarted. Boult apologised to the audience for the error: "Entirely my mistake, ladies and gentlemen". It later transpired that the orchestra's leader, Paul Beard, had altered the bowing of the string parts to make them more readable, and so public criticism for the collapse was transferred to him and his modifications (critics included the conductor John Barbirolli, himself a string player, who approved the original notation of the parts and blamed Beard's rewrites for obliterating the natural off-beat phrasing that Tippett had carefully notated). Recent scholarship, however, indicates that the cause of the collapse lay rather with the flute getting lost and beginning a solo passage one bar too early; the woodwind section en masse proceeded to get a bar ahead of the strings (who in the meantime were ignoring the confusion and serenely playing on without incident). When the horns (who were taking their cues from the woodwind parts) joined in the melee by coming in a bar too early also, Boult took the decision to halt the performance. Ironically, therefore (in view of the opprobrium attached to Beard), the blame may indeed have lain with Boult – it is unclear if the flute player took an independent decision to enter early or was mistakenly cued in by Boult.
Tippett's second opera King Priam was produced by the Royal Opera in 1962 as part of the festival to mark the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral. The following night Britten's War Requiem had its premiere. This time there was less criticism of the libretto, which Tippett had extracted from the epic poems of Homer and again discussed in detail with T. S. Eliot, than of the music. In contrast to the radiant lyricism of The Midsummer Marriage, the sound-world was often stark and austere, with notable use of brass and percussion. A similar approach can be seen in other works from this period: the Second Piano Sonata (1962), the Concerto for Orchestra (1963) and The Vision of Saint Augustine (1965).
In 1960 Tippett moved into a house in Corsham, Wiltshire, with his partner Karl Hawker, a young painter. Hawker and he had previously been living in somewhat strained circumstances with Tippett's mother in an old manor-house in Wadhurst, Sussex. He took up a post as music adviser at the nearby Bath Academy of Art and invited young composers to his house, including Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr. From the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, Tippett had a close relationship with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO), conducting them regularly in the UK and on tour in Europe. For them he composed The Shires Suite, one of his most accessible works. He found time to serve on the music committee of the British Council and on the advisory panel to the BBC. His services to music were recognised by the award of a CBE in 1959 and a knighthood in 1966.
Tippett's first visit to America in 1965 was a watershed in his life and work. Invited as guest composer to the music festival in Aspen, Colorado, he loved the wide open landscapes and the warmth and candour of the young Americans he met. The experience changed him and his music. The most immediate impact was on the shaping of the libretto for his third opera, The Knot Garden. Set in a modern city garden, its complex tangle of relationships and open exploration of sexuality are clearly influenced by 1960s American theatre and cinema. Musically, the opera draws on Tippett's love of jazz and blues, and the orchestra line-up includes electric guitar and drums. A striking feature is the use of novel, quasi-cinematic musical 'dissolves' and cross-cutting forward and back in time. The first production was directed by Peter Hall at Covent Garden in 1970 and revived in 1972. Also in 1972, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Letters) by the University of Bath.
Tippett continued to confront both personal and public demons in his Third Symphony of 1973. The finale, quoting from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, contains settings of his own texts that attempt to find a response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Here, as in A Child of Our Time, Tippett turns to the blues for spiritual and emotional solace, and in his writing for solo soprano achieved perhaps his most successful and moving tribute to Bessie Smith, an artist he had long admired.
The final two decades of Tippett's life saw no decline in his creative energy. The Third Symphony was quickly followed by a Fourth. Commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and first performed by them in 1977 under Georg Solti, its one-movement form encompasses the traditional four-movements of the classical symphony. Tippett described it as a 'birth to death' piece. Chamber works from the 1970s include the Third Piano Sonata, first performed by Paul Crossley at the 1973 Bath Festival (Tippett was artistic director of the festival from 1969–1974) and the Fourth String Quartet, premiered by the Lindsay String Quartet at Bath in 1979. These artists were among a growing number whose committed advocacy of the composer helped his music to reach a wider audience. Chief among them was the conductor Colin Davis. His recordings of three of the four symphonies, operas and choral works have set a benchmark for all later interpretations.
The Ice Break, Tippett's fourth opera, was beset by production difficulties. At its Covent Garden premiere in 1977 it received a mixed reception. The libretto was attacked for its use of contemporary slang and the plot, featuring race riots and a psychedelic 'trip', was held by some to be sensational. Further productions have strengthened the work's reputation, but it remains one of the least-performed of Tippett's major works.
From 1970 onward Tippett experienced health problems. His eyesight grew worse as a result of macular dystrophy and he began to need special large-sized manuscript paper to see the notes. With the help of his musical amanuensis Michael Tillett and his personal assistant, travelling companion and close friend Meirion Bowen he was able to complete his later scores. A move to a modern house in the middle of rolling fields near Calne in Wiltshire gave Tippett the privacy he wanted, as well as providing a setting for him to entertain his many friends and musical admirers. His relationship with Karl Hawker had greatly deteriorated by the time of the move. Hawker left to live in London and in 1984 he committed suicide.
Tippett's music increased greatly in popularity during the 1970s, thanks in part to the recordings made by Philips. His seventieth birthday in January 1975 coincided with the showing on British television of the film Akenfield, which made prominent use of the Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli.[n 3] In the United States his music was becoming widely known and performed, and he began to attract a following among young musicians: he was amused when four students turned up in Chicago in 1974 wearing 'Turn on to Tippett' T-shirts. A score of British Universities awarded him honorary doctorates, and further official recognition came with the award in 1976 of the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society and in 1983 of the Order of Merit.
After writing the gamelan-inspired Triple Concerto of 1979, Tippett concentrated on the composition of The Mask of Time, a large-scale, ambitious choral piece that was in some ways a summation of his life's work. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, its European premiere at the 1984 Proms was relayed on BBC television. The vast scope of the text, itself almost an anthropological survey taking in creation myths, world religions and man's impact on the planet, impressed critics and listeners alike, as did the similarly eclectic score. A series of world tours had inspired Tippett to extend his musical vocabulary to include exotic percussion and wordless choral effects.
A less favourable reception was given to his last opera, New Year. At its Houston premiere in 1989 audiences were unimpressed by the futuristic space-age electronic sound effects and jokey subtitles. It fared better at Glyndebourne in 1990, but Tippett's bleak vision of 'Terror Town', where the sole unifying ritual is the singing of Auld Lang Syne at the turn of the year, surprised and displeased many. Tippett completed three more works in his late eighties: the Fifth String Quartet, Byzantium for soprano and orchestra, and his final luminous orchestral masterpiece, The Rose Lake, inspired by a visit to Lake Retba in Senegal in 1990. In 1996, Tippett moved from Wiltshire to London. In late 1997, while in Stockholm for a retrospective of his concert music, he developed pneumonia. Tippett died on 8 January 1998 in his west London home, six days after his ninety-third birthday.
The Michael Tippett Centre located on Bath Spa University's Newton Park campus was opened by Tippett himself and is now part of the University's music department. It also acts as a hub for local residents and students with concerts and shows regularly performed there.
Tippett assimilated many influences, from 16th century church music and madrigals, Purcell, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Hindemith and Bartók to folk music, blues, jazz-rock and Balinese gamelan music, eventually finding his own highly personal and expressive style.
From the long flowing lines and subtle interplay of voices in the music of Palestrina and Byrd, he learned how to write contrapuntally. The rhythmic vitality of the English madrigal provided the model for the 'sprung' rhythms of his early works, such as the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Purcell was a major influence, both for his idiomatic word-setting and his expressive use of dissonance and 'false relations' to convey anguish – this last being a common factor in the music of other 17th century composers, especially Monteverdi and Dowland. Such non-functional harmony is characteristic too of the 'wrong-note' style of Stravinsky in the 1920s, as well as the 'blue' notes of jazz. Bach was less an inspiration than a mentor for Tippett, who was more drawn to the dramatic flair of Handel. Nevertheless he applied himself diligently to the study of Bach's fugues under Morris, a discipline which enabled him to write fugally with confident mastery. Beethoven remained a major obsession throughout his life. His influence can be seen principally in the symphonies and chamber works. The dynamic energy of Beethoven, the dramatic ebb and flow of his music and his use of strongly contrasting, even opposing elements to create a musical argument are all characteristic of Tippett's music. He described his Third Piano Sonata as his "late Beethoven sonata", and in the finale of the Third Symphony paid direct homage by quoting the opening bars of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
A feature of many of Tippett's early works is their use of irregular rhythms and pulse or 'additive rhythm'. This can be traced to a number of sources including folksongs of the British Isles. A parallel can be found in the work of Stravinsky and Bartok, both of whom were inspired by the rhythms of folk music. Harmonically, both of these composers (and Hindemith) made use of harmonies based on the interval of a fourth – known as 'quartal' – to replace the classic 'functional' harmony that had been around since at least 1600. Chords built up in fourths (or fifths) feature in many of Tippett's works, an example being the opening of the Piano Concerto.
Unlike his near contemporaries Walton and Britten, Tippett was slow to mature. Having found his musical voice, it continued to develop throughout his career. In the process his music went through several changes of style; the most dramatic and far-reaching of these was associated with the composition of his second opera King Priam. A different kind of change occurred after he visited in America in 1965. The impact of American culture, landscapes and people all pointed Tippett in a new direction. The immediate result was the claustrophobic, emotional hot-house of The Knot Garden, with its references to psychoanalysis, political extremism and sexual politics. Musically, the new elements were increased dissonance, complexity and the presence of electric guitar and jazz percussion in the orchestra pit. The Triple Concerto of 1979 saw a return to the melodic style of the early works, albeit with a darker orchestral palette coloured with exotic percussion. In his final years Tippett achieved a synthesis of all these elements in a richly allusive Expressionism.
Broadly speaking, Tippett's music can be seen as falling into four distinct periods. The first period (1935–47) includes the first three quartets, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the oratorio A Child of Our Time and the First Symphony. This period is characterised by strenuous contrapuntal energy and deeply lyrical slow movements. The second period, from then until the late 1950s, includes the opera The Midsummer Marriage, the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, the Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony; this period features rich textures and effervescent melody. The third period, the 1960s and early 1970s, is in stark contrast, and is characterised by abrupt statements and simplicity of texture, as in the opera King Priam, the Concerto for Orchestra and the Second Piano Sonata. The fourth period is a rich mixture of all these styles, using many devices, such as quotation (from Beethoven and Mussorgsky, among others). The main works of this period were the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the operas The Ice Break and New Year, and the large-scale choral work The Mask of Time.
While it is true that Tippett's music is not as obviously 'English' in style as composers of the so-called 'English pastoral school' – Vaughan Williams, Holst and Delius, and later Howells and Finzi – there is an underlying thread of nature mysticism running through it which is as English as William Blake, Samuel Palmer or John Keats. Tippett lived most of life in the English countryside. He spent his childhood in rural Suffolk, only forty miles away from Britten's home town of Lowestoft in Suffolk. In later life, his music room looked out onto the rolling Wiltshire downlands. In the words of the composer David Matthews, "There are passages in his music which evoke the 'sweet especial rural scene' as vividly as Elgar or Vaughan Williams; passages (such as the Pastorale from the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli) perhaps redolent of the Suffolk landscape with its gently undulating horizons, wide skies and soft lights. But Tippett's music, unlike that of the previous generation, is not obviously nostalgic; there is no sense of loss, rather of a vision continually present."
A particular feature of Tippett's early works is their rhythmic and contrapuntal energy. This is the result of a number of factors, the primary one being his use of 'additive rhythm', where irregular groupings of notes create a fluid pulse quite unlike the rigid beat of previous classical composers such as Beethoven or Brahms. A good example is the finale of the First String Quartet. The music is light, buoyant and dance-like. Many of his themes use a type of syncopation found commonly in jazz and popular song, known as 'anticipatory rhythm'. Here the stress is thrown forward onto an unstressed offbeat, as in the opening subject of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra or the spiritual 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Lord' from A Child of Our Time.
Tippett's music derives much of its vigour, drive and energy from his contrapuntal writing. His studies with Morris gave him the confidence of a secure technique, allowing him to write polyphonic music with ease and assurance. After the First Symphony, his style became less severely linear, but his continuing love of fugue can be seen in works such as the Third String Quartet, where three out of the five movements are fugal, and the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli. Canons are another favourite device, as shown in the introduction to the aria 'The soul of man' in A Child of Our Time, where the restlessness of the music is subtly underlined by the use of canon by inversion.
The influence on Tippett of sixteenth-century counterpoint initially led him to assert that there was not a single chord in the works of his first period. Although untrue, his preference was for a linear approach rather than melody and accompaniment. After the First Symphony there emerged three main strands to his harmonic approach: classical triadic harmony, though with an originality and freshness all his own (for example Mark's first aria in the Midsummer Marriage); modal harmony deriving from folk song, blues and Purcell, and twentieth-century experimentation with chords in fourths and fifths by Debussy, Hindemith, Stravinsky and Bartok. His style remained broadly tonal until the Second Symphony, when it embraced polytonality. From King Priam onwards, dissonance and chromaticism were to the fore, resulting in what some writers have called 'free atonality' or 'pantonality.'
Tippett had a lifelong fascination with folksong and dance. As a young man, he loved the Skye Boat Song and the Londonderry Air, and was struck not only by their direct emotional appeal but by their melodic construction and careful placing of climaxes. Asked by a group of music students in Boston which twentieth-century composer he most admired, he replied, "Gershwin: because in an age of experimentation with rhythm...Gershwin kept song alive. In the "Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles (1948), Tippett reworked folk-like melodies from his earlier ballad opera Robin Hood. He also used the Scottish hymn tune Crimond, a traditional French cradle song, an Irish version of the fertility dance-tune "All Around My Hat" and a reference to the English folksong "Early One Morning". The slow movement of the First Piano Sonata is based on the Scottish folk melody "Ca the Yowes to the Knowes", as is that of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Other works inspired by folksong include Four Songs from the British Isles for unaccompanied choir (1956) and The Shires Suite (1970).
A different kind of folksong inspired one of Tippett's most frequently performed works. The five African-American spirituals which form the emotional core of the oratorio A Child of Our Time were chosen by the composer as a modern alternative to the traditional chorales in the Passions of Bach. Their contemporary relevance is reinforced by the emergence in the 1950s of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Melody plays an important role in all of the works Tippett wrote in the 1930s and 1940s. The slow movement of the First String Quartet opens with "an extended arch of lyric melody" (Ian Kemp), which was a direct response to the experience of falling in love: "all that love flowed out in the slow movement of my First String Quartet, an unbroken span of lyrical music in which all four instruments sing ardently from start to finish" was Tippett's own description. The music of the 1950s is fundamentally lyric in style, though there are comparatively few long-breathed melodies; two such can be found in the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and the Piano Concerto opens with a long tune for high piano and flute, creating "a sustained crescendo, thirty-three bars long leading to a sonorous tutti"(David Matthews). The fourth movement of the Second Symphony contains a passage consisting of a long arching line for unison violins (followed by 'cellos), accompanied by swirling woodwind, which the composer described as "a very long melody". Over twenty years later Tippett returned to writing melody of deceptive simplicity in the slow movement of the Triple Concerto. His final work, The Rose Lake is subtitled 'A Song without Words for orchestra'.
From his earliest years as a composer Tippett wrote what he felt he had to write. The music emerged as the culmination of a long process of inner search and personal development. The most important example of this creative process is A Child of Our Time. His other two major choral works, The Vision of Saint Augustine (1965) and The Mask of Time (1982) had a similar genesis. In the later part of his life Tippett refused to allow commissions for concertos and other works tailor-made for specific artists to divert him from his creative goals. He seldom revised his earlier works.
After this long period of gestation, he wrote slowly but steadily. "Noting Eliot's comment that, for himself as a poet, 'the words come last', Tippett only began writing down the notes when he had a clear concept of the structure and character of the piece in question. He invariably composed straight into full score: and he always started at the beginning of the piece, continuing until he reached the end – then he stopped. Taken overall, this kind of compositional procedure is fairly unusual" (Meirion Bowen).
The composer Andrew Ford relates this revealing anecdote: "the first time I...met him, as a student composer..., he...[gave] me some very valuable advice. I had just completed a piece which was extremely complex and I was very proud of it, but then it was played and I had never heard anything so boring. For all my use of mathematical procedures, there was nothing of interest in the music. Tippett ... said, 'Just use your ears, love.'"
For a long time Tippett had to face a recurrent charge: that his music was amateurish, over-complicated and even unplayable. In the words of Ian Kemp, "[a]lthough it was acknowledged to contain fine moments, it was criticized as the work of a dilettante, weakened by a profusion of extra-musical allusion. A critical commonplace was that Tippett was straining to say something he was technically ill-equipped to do". Some of these comments may have arisen as a result of inadequate rehearsal time and unfamiliarity with Tippett's rhythmic innovations. In addition, his reluctance to analyse his own music "encouraged the view that while his verbal literacy was formidable, his musical literacy was not" (Kemp).
A frequent broadcaster on the BBC Third Programme from its inception in 1946, Tippett published some of his radio talks in 1958 as a book. He called it Moving into Aquarius. The title refers to the mythical belief in the dawning of a 'new age' under the astrological sign of Aquarius[n 4] The twin themes are the artist as himself and the artist in relation to society.
I have been writing music for forty years. During those years there have been huge and world-shattering events in which I have been inevitably caught up. Whether society has felt music valuable or needful I have gone on writing because I must. And I know that my true function within a society which embraces all of us, is to continue a tradition, fundamental to our civilization, which goes back into pre-history and will go forward into the unknown future. This tradition is to create images from the depths of the imagination and to give them form whether visual, intellectual or musical. For it is only through images that the inner world communicates at all. Images of the past, shapes of the future. Images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty.
In 1991, his autobiography Those Twentieth Century Blues was published. Among other insights, this book contains a selection of Tippett's dreams. Peter Heyworth has made the observation that the dreams' "relevance to his creative life became increasingly evident. In particular, the series of works that were to establish his reputation during and after the war and to culminate in The Midsummer Marriage...hove into view. The therapy had worked..." A final collection of the composer's writings was published in 1995 under the title Tippett on Music.
- Iulia de Beausobre's book The Woman who could not die, with its first-hand account of torture and imprisonment in the Soviet camps, was published in 1938. Tippett's pacifism prevented him from joining Communist volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
- "Not since Salvador Dali tried to introduce a flying hippotamus into the cast of Strauss's Salome has the Royal Opera House had such a baffled cast on its hands as the one which will launch Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage into the world tomorrow night." News Chronicle, 26 January 1955, cited in Bowen, p.33
- The ITV viewing audience was estimated at over 14 million
- A concept popularised in the song Aquarius from the 1968 Broadway musical Hair
- Bowen, pp.41, 120, 246–7
- Bowen, p.33
- Tippett's obituary in Gramophone, July 1998
- "Great British composer dies at 93". BBC News. 9 January 1998.
- Kemp, p.5
- Kemp, p.8
- Bowen, p.3
- Kemp, p.10
- Bowen, pp.3–4
- Kemp, p.13
- Bowen, p.4
- Kemp, p.12
- Kemp, p.15
- The Times, 11 November 1938, cited in Bowen, p. 7
- Kemp, p.20
- Matthews, p.22
- Bowen, p.9
- Tippett, Those Twentieth Century Blues, p.52
- Bowen, p.10
- Bowen, p.11
- Tippett, Those Twentieth Century Blues, p.58
- Tippett, Michael, Moving Into Aquarius. p. 152
- Bowen, p.12
- Official Book and Programme of the Pageant of Labour, 1934
- Bowen, p.14
- Kemp, pp.34–5
- Kemp, p.36
- Kemp, p.38
- Bowen, pp.14–15
- Matthews, p.25
- Kemp, p.37
- Bowen, pp.15–16
- Bowen, p.17
- Bowen, p.18
- The Observer", 25 April 1943, cited in Bowen, p.19
- Bowen, pp.24–25
- Bowen, p.25
- The Observer, 24 March 1944, cited in Bowen, p.25
- Tippett, Music for Our Time, The Sunday Telegraph, 3 January 1965
- The Times, 4 September 1953, cited in Kemp, p.52
- Bowen, p.36
- Bowen, p.37
- Levison & Farrer, Classical Music's Strangest Concerts, pp.162–165
- Bowen, p.30
- Kemp, p. 436
- Bowen, p. 41
- Kemp, p.412
- Bowen, p.48
- Bowen p.47
- Bowen, p.43
- Bowen, p.54
- Anthony Tommasini, "Sir Michael Tippett, 93, Composer of Many Styles, Dies", The New York Times, 10 January 1998.
- Kemp, p.55
- Kemp, p.66
- Kemp, p.67
- Matthews, p.96
- Kemp, p.96
- Matthews, p.58
- Kemp, p.58
- Matthews, p.17
- Matthews, pp.17–18
- Kemp, p. 100
- Kemp, p. 90
- Matthews, p.103
- Bowen, p.60
- Tippett, Those Twentieth Century Blues, p.249
- Kemp, p.122
- sleeve notes to Philips LP, ZRG 535
- Bowen, p.39
- Ford, p.241
- Kemp, p.52
- Kemp, p.53
- Kemp, p. 50
- Tippett, Moving into Aquarius, p.100
- The Observer, cited in Bowen, p.51
- Bowen, Meirion (1983). Michael Tippett. London: Robson Books. ISBN 1-86105-099-2.
- Ford, Andrew. Composer to Composer. London: Quartet Books=1993. ISBN ISBN 0-7043-7061-1.
- Kemp, Ian (1987) . Tippett: the composer and his music (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-282017-6.
- Matthews, David (1980). Michael Tippett – An Introductory Study. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-10954-3.
- Tippett, Michael (1959). Moving into Aquarius. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN ISBN 0-586-08179-8.
- Tippett, Michael (1991). Those Twentieth Century Blues. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-175307-4.
- Tippett, Michael (2005). Thomas Schuttenhelm, ed. The selected letters of Michael Tippett. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-22600-0.
- Excerpts from audio interviews with Tippett from the BBC
- Michael Tippett's page at Schott Music Schott Music ltd.
- (French) A biography of Michael Tippett, from IRCAM's website.
- Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra website—contains articles and a few photographs of Tippett, who was their patron and conducted them regularly in the UK and Europe, as well as some interesting Tippett memorabilia
- Shires Suite—information and a short audio excerpts from various LSSO recordings
- Suite in D—information and short audio excerpts from the 1967 Pye recording
- Tippett's Midsummer Marriage—an exploration of the spiritual and psychological dimensions