Concerto for Double String Orchestra (Tippett)

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Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938–39) is one of his most popular and frequently performed works.

Like other works of the composer's early maturity such as the First Piano Sonata and the First String Quartet, the Concerto is characterized by rhythmic energy and a direct melodic appeal. Representing both a meeting point for many of his early influences and a release for the catalytic experiences that defined the decade after leaving London and the Royal College of Music, the Concerto was an experiment in multiplicities, where the diversity of the thematic material (invented and imported) became synthesized through the timbral unity of the ensemble—two ensembles in fact, a further manifestation of the opposition and divisions contributing to the work’s multi-dimensionality.[1] The influence of Bartok and Stravinsky can be shown, as well as that of the 17th century English Madrigal School. From these, and from folk-song, Tippett derives his distinctive and personal technique of 'additive rhythm'. This has been described as 'a kind of rhythm the effect of which is determined by an accumulation of irregular, unpredictable accents in the music'.[2] The composer David Matthews describes the effect thus: "[I]t is the rhythmic freedom of the music, its joyful liberation from orthodox notions of stress and phrase length, that contributes so much to its vitality".[3]

By dividing the orchestra into two equal and identical sections Tippett is able to play one off against the other, using syncopation and imitation to add further to the rhythmic vitality and propulsion of the music. This antiphonal effect is similar to that found in Renaissance and early Baroque choral music by composers such as Monteverdi and Gabrieli. The first movement (Allegro con brio) is in sonata form and contrasts a vigorous, driving theme in octaves with a more delicate, lightly scored idea on violins and cellos. The slow movement (Adagio cantabile) opens with one of Tippett's most affecting and heartfelt melodies for low solo violin, revealing the composer's deep love of Blues, especially the singing of Bessie Smith. A fugue offers chromatic contrast, and the movement is rounded off by a return of the opening tune on solo cello. In the rondo finale (Allegro molto) Tippett uses a theme based on a Northumbrian bagpipe tune to bring the work to an exciting and uplifting climax.

As in the 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time and the Symphony No. 3 of 1973, Tippett's humanitarian concerns are clearly evidenced in his use of melodies deriving from, and referring to, folk and popular musical sources.

Tippett completed the score on June 6 1939 and it was premiered April 21 1940.[4]

The tonality[edit]

  • Modal
Tippett uses tonal centres (but they are not related e.g. A and A flat) e.g. the tonal centre of A bars 1-20


  • There are various textures used throughout the piece. Bars 1-8 is a two-part counterpoint; there is also inverted imitation in bars 8-10. Bars 21-30 is melody-dominated homophony. There is an arpeggio accompaniment from bar 30 onwards.


When the piece starts it sounds like ritornello form, but it is actually in sonata form.

  • Exposition: has 2 themes-
Theme 1- bars 1-20
Theme 2- bars 33-67
  • Development:
Development is bars 68-128
  • Recapitulation:
Main Themes again both based in A
  • Finishes Coda
bars 194-232


  • The melody is based on motifs, e.g. the opening oscillating quaver pattern, bars 21 onwards this is used as an accompaniment.
  • The second motif is then in Orchestra 2 - bars 1-4
  • Other motifs include the 'trill' motif bar 22-23


  • Dissonant e.g. 51, but tonal.
  • Some chord based bars 33-35
  • Use of some recognisable harmonic features e.g. bar 20-21 a Phrygian cadence (IVb-V in a minor key)


  • Use of syncopation, e.g. bars 68-70
  • Use of additive rhythm.
Quaver used as a building block for different rhythmic patterns e.g. bar 15.


  1. ^ Thomas Schuttenhelm, The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 35.
  2. ^ Bowen, Meiron (1988). CD Liner notes, VC 7 90701-2
  3. ^ Matthews, David (1980). Michael Tippett: An introductory study. Faber and Faber. p.27
  4. ^ Thomas Schuttenhelm The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 57.