Symphony No. 3 (Tippett)

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Symphony No. 3 by Michael Tippett is a work for soprano and orchestra with text written by the composer.

It was composed between 1970 and 1972 and received its premiere on 22 June 1972 at the Royal Festival Hall, London, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with the soprano Heather Harper conducted by Colin Davis.

The symphony is notable for its use of blues and its direct quotation of the opening of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The work criticises the ecstatic and utopian understanding of the brotherhood of man as expressed in the Ode to Joy and instead stresses man's capacity for both good and evil.[1] The work is consequently characterised by contrasting and conflicting parts, its overall design being "one massive antithesis".[2]


The work consists of two parts:

  1. Allegro non troppo e pesante (Arrest) - Allegro molto e con grande energia (Movement)
  2. Allegro molto - Slow Blues (Andante) - Fast blues (Allegro)


Tippett's conception of the Third Symphony occurred during a concert in Edinburgh in 1965 during a performance of either Pierre Boulez's Piano Sonata No. 2[3] or Pli selon pli.[4] Tippett detected an absence of harmonic, rhythmic and melodic motion in the work. Such an approach to composition could only be utilised by Tippett if it was presented within the context of a dialectic with its opposite, hence the Third Symphony was constructed on the concepts of "arrest" and "movement" which Tippett likened to the pull and thrust of a jet engine.[5] Parts 1 and 2 of the work, and their component sections, follow this cycle of "arrest" and "movement".

Tippett wanted to avoid the "Shostakovich bombast" characteristic of many finales and decided to compose the finale as a set of blues. He possessed a great admiration for Bessie Smith's 1925 recording of St Louis Blues in particular. Tippett interpreted the repeated bass line of the blues in terms of a Purcellian ground bass, which would make the finale a form of passacaglia. The most important reason for Tippett's decision to use the blues was its ability to communicate simply and directly.[6]

By the time Tippett came to compose the symphony in spring 1970, he had already written the text of the four songs for the finale.[7] Mahler's settings of Chinese poems in Das Lied von der Erde served as a precedent for Tippett of a work which articulated song text in the shape of a symphony: "I began thus to plan and organize lyrics that would have a shape - of a human being moving from innocence to experience".[8] The symphony's text was formulated as a critical response to the sentiment embodied in Schiller's Ode to Joy: Schiller's ecstatic celebration of the brotherhood of man was untenable in a century that had witnessed the Holocaust, gulags and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.[9] In the dramatic fourth song, therefore, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is quoted three times at climactic points and its message is challenged in the text and music of the work. Tippett's confrontation with Beethoven is suggested from the outset of the piece, the abrupt chords in the first bar being reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven's own Symphony No. 3.[10]


The manuscript of the work is in the Tippett Collection (Add MS 61796-61798) of the British Library.


  1. ^ Matthews, p.93
  2. ^ Kemp, p.438
  3. ^ Kemp, p.439
  4. ^ Bowen, p.117
  5. ^ Matthews, p.92
  6. ^ Kemp, p.439
  7. ^ Tippett, p.157
  8. ^ Robinson, p.186
  9. ^ Bowen, p.122
  10. ^ Kemp, p.441


  • Bowen, Meirion (1981). Michael Tippett. London: Robson. 
  • Kemp, Ian (1987). Tippett: The Composer and his Music. Oxford: Oxford. 
  • Matthews, David (1980). Michael Tippett: An Introductory Study. London: Faber. 
  • Robinson, Suzanne (2002). Michael Tippett: Music and Literature. Aldershot: Ashgate. 
  • Tippett, Michael (1974). Moving Into Aquarius. St Albans: Paladin. 

External links[edit]

Gramophone 1975 review of the first recording