Like the rest of us, a composer needs to know who his friends are. The point was not lost on Michael Tippett, and in the second half of his career it was the words of many of those friends, as authors and editors of books and festschriften, that shaped the public image of the man and his music. Tippett was born in 1905 and started composing as a student at the Royal College of Music in the 1920s, continuing until 1995, three years before his death.
Now, to mark his centenary, Faber has published a selection of the composer's letters: about one fifth of them, according to David Matthews's brief foreword, although the editor, Thomas Schuttenhelm, never really elaborates on his selection criteria.
At least three of those who published books on Tippett in his lifetime are represented among the addressees - Eric Walter White, Ian Kemp and Meirion Bowen, who was Tippett's lover from the mid-1960s and companion and manager until his death. There are also the performers and agents on whom Tippett relied, especially in his thirties and forties, to assist the take-off of his career: staff at the BBC, his publisher Schott and Co and the Royal Opera House - which premiered his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage (product of more than a decade's gestation, documented here), and commissioned his third, The Knot Garden, in 1970 - as well as collaborators such as Barbara Hepworth, the set designer for The Midsummer Marriage , and Benjamin Britten, his closest composer colleague. Few are business letters in any conventional sense. When Tippett wants to ask for something he gets to the point slowly and obscurely, with apologies and circuitous phrasing - most strikingly in the large number of letters, to friends and professional colleagues, occasioned by his wartime tribunal as a conscientious objector.
His friends, too, provided crucial assistance in the early years (one discovery of the book is the extent to which Francesca Allinson, his closest female friend until her suicide in 1945, helped him out financially in the war years), funding and circulating a private recording of his first piano sonata, among other schemes, although there is rarely a word of thanks as such from Tippett, more the unwritten understanding that he will be given what he needs.
When not asking for help, he is thinking aloud, about music or politics (including a number of letters to his fellow composer and socialist Alan Bush). It is all rather self-centred: the familiar paradox of the great humanist who loves mankind but finds relations with individuals difficult.
Perhaps things had been different - there are no letters to check - with Wilfred Franks, an artist friend and lover who seems to have broken Tippett's heart in the 1930s. Tippett recognises, writing to another friend, David Ayerst, that he may have reacted to the end of the affair by displacing his emotional energies into work. Certainly with subsequent lovers, such as Douglas Newton in the 1940s, the letters are frank, open, but hardly intimate, and finally Tippett seems to wash his hands of Newton's own problems as a conscientious objector and to retreat back into his musical projects.
In the 1960s and 1970s, as he became the object of adulation by a new generation of fans, Tippett's focus was increasingly on works with text that allowed him to ironise his status as artist-messenger: Mangus in The Knot Garden and Astron in The Ice Break both eventually disclaim guru status. As with the Jungian acknowledgment of "my shadow and my light" that so preoccupied Tippett earlier, the gesture is ambiguous, since the very disavowal of wisdom can serve to make him look even wiser. Personally, the older Tippett has less time for uncertainty, and the letters become briefer and more to the point as the composer's life is increasingly organised by Bowen around the twin needs of work - communicating the message (even the message that the message may be flawed) - and publicity. "It works marvellously for me. Perhaps sometimes tough on others," Tippett writes to Colin Davis, explaining the new set-up.
Tippett outlived most of his friends and dropped many. The organisation of the book by addressee rather than chronologically, while necessitating a certain amount of cross-referencing by the reader, does help identify the different phases of the composer's career and the extent to which its evolution shaped his personal associations. Schuttenhelm perceives how various individuals contributed to Tippett's increasing marketability yet seems unable to explore its implications; his short introductions to each group of letters are miniature masterpieces of academic blandness. Not only does he lack flair, he seems occasionally stumped by the range of reference - Tippett's handwriting may have been difficult, but even one rather famous quotation from Auden ("Oh wear your tribulation like a rose") comes out wrong, with "wear" as "near".
After a composer's death, it can be hard to imagine that we did not always know what age he would reach. (One is startled now to find Tippett writing in the 1940s, during the composition of his first published symphony: "It's what I would call typical 'middle-period music'.") Composers' reputations tend to suffer a posthumous decline, when, after a late period of celebrity in which the music is underwritten by the figure of the artist, the sudden disappearance of the visible personality behind the work causes a shift in valuation.
Coming so soon after his death, Tippett's centenary has failed to bring about the reevaluation one might have hoped for. With so much already said about Tippett by those with access to the composer's point of view, what we really need is a critical social history of Tippett and the publicity industry to match the intellectual critique of David Clarke's The Music and Thought of Michael Tippett . Meanwhile, for the "authorised version", Ian Kemp's 1984 life and works remains more than serviceable - intelligent and acute, and energised rather than intimidated by the example of its fascinating, contradictory subject.
John Fallas is a freelance writer on contemporary music.
The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett
Editor - Thomas Schuttenhelm
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 456
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 571 22600 0