A child of our time

March 10, 1995

Julian Philips surveys the life of English composer, pacifist and nonagenarian writer of rap, Sir Michael Tippett. Earlier this year, one of Britain's most remarkable composers celebrated his ninetieth birthday. The day was marked with a special concert at London's Wigmore Hall and the last few weeks have seen a host of articles, new recordings, concerts and broadcasts, culminating in the Barbican's three-week festival, Visions of Paradise. Plenty of opportunities, then, to hear his music, but what of the man?

Born in 1905 Michael Tippett has seen enormous musical changes in his lifetime. Distinguished by his determination, energy and vision, it is his independence and compassion that have really set him apart from his contemporaries. These two qualities grew from earliest childhood. Tippett was encouraged to think freely and read widely by his father whose European business ventures forced him to become highly cosmopolitan in outlook, avoiding that bane of British music, provinciality. Tippett's mother may well have influenced his later political beliefs; as a suffragette she was arrested and imprisoned in 1913 for holding illegal demonstrations.

Tippett is full of anecdotes about one other relative, his grandfather, George Frederick John Tippett, a stylish entrepreneur, whose complex business dealings unfortunately got the better of him, for he was sentenced to nine months in prison at the Old Bailey, dying on his release in 1899.

How many young preparatory school pupils write and circulate a paper denying the existence of God and how many decide, with barely any real musical training, to become a composer? This was the young Tippett; middle-class, English, but possessing extraordinary inner strength. He had the determination to become a composer, even if he lacked the skills. The way he set about acquiring them showed an uncanny maturity for a teenager.

Tippett was admitted to the Royal College of Music in 1923, (after his parents had met a professional musician on a train), where he applied himself diligently to acquiring the information he lacked. One of his most formative early influences was Sir Adrian Boult; known as Boult's darling he attended every one of Boult's conducting classes - standing behind him on the podium, and soaking in the sounds of the symphony orchestra.

Once out of the college, Tippett knew he needed time and space to write, away from London, and from the early 1930s settled in Oxted, making a living through conducting local choirs and teaching. For a decade, he broadened his outlook and forged his musical personality, mounting occasional performances of his compositions. Tippett talks about the way he developed as a composer with a sense of inevitability; almost as if it was all mapped out from the beginning. Looking back now he clearly regards his "rites of passage'' as personal and no model for today's up and coming composers.

During this period, Tippett came into contact with Auden and Eliot, and immersed himself in politics and philosophy, becoming fascinated with the writings of Jung and developing his own left-wing views. His music was often overshadowed by his political activities which grew in intensity throughout the 1930s. He organised the musical life of a number of work camps in North Yorkshire, conducted the South London Orchestra at Morley College, made up of the local unemployed, and composed his first music theatre works, including a folksong opera, Robin Hood (1934), which did not shrink from political subtexts. In 1935 Tippett joined the British Communist Party, and his political involvement reached a peak with the writing of a revolutionary play, War Ramp, which concerned itself with "the incredible clash between payment for war in arms and legs, and payment for war in money''.

During 1934-38, Tippett composed his first works of real personality with his first String Quarter and Piano Sonata, together with the popular Concerto for Double String Orchestra and it became necessary to curtail his political activities. In 1939, he took his interest in Jung a stage further, undergoing self-analysis which, days before the outbreak of the Second World War, climaxed with a dream of a liberating death. Four figures approached him from the corners of his bed and placing their hands around his throat, began to strangle him. When Tippett woke, with the words "let what must be happen", his inner struggles had achieved some kind of resolution.

With his path ahead now clearer, Tippett began to produce the sequence of works on which his fame rests today. His political concerns remained - the starting point for the oratorio A Child of our Time was the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris, 1938, by a young Jew, Herschel Grynspan. But his beliefs had broadened from Trotskyism to pacifism, from a specific manifesto to an all encompassing sense of human compassion, and in June 1943 he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for his refusal to participate in the war effort. His music became enriched with radiant optimism and spiritual honesty.

With his appointment as director of music at Morley College in 1940, a post he held until 1951, gradually Tippett's music came to the attention of the wider public. The turning point was the premire of A Child of our Time at the Adelphi Theatre in March 1944, indeed this work remains one of his most widely performed and appreciated today. A Child of our Time is a creation whose own life almost seems to surprise Tippett when he recalls what a success it has become. Voicing the concerns of its time, it is unique for its rich interaction between private and public worlds. The score is prefaced with the lines "the darkness declares the glory of light" and it speaks of the spiritual enlightenment that an understanding of both sides of the human spirit can bring.

It seems almost inevitable that with his wide passions and beliefs, Tippett should have been drawn to the world of opera, and in many ways it was the man whose advice he sought over A Child of our Time who opened the world of the theatre to him. T. S. Eliot was perhaps the most important of Tippett's influences, and the poet remains still very alive for him today. He talks of Eliot's theatrical philosophy, how every performing art involves the elements of music, drama and dance, each given a different significance in opera, the spoken play and dance.

Tippett had asked Eliot to write the text for his oratorio, but analysing the first draft, he realised that his contribution would be too much in the realm of poetry. Thus Tippett came to the decision to write his own texts for future works notably his first opera The Midsummer Marriage, written for the Royal Opera House, a synthesis of the composer's many preoccupations: Greek myth, Jungian symbolism, Shakespeare, Eliot and Yeats. It is perhaps not surprising that its first audiences in 1955 were perplexed by its complex web of references - the Daily Express referred to its libretto as "the worst in the 350-year-old history of music''.

The opera remains a crucial work in Tippett's output, summing up many of the musical and philosophical ideas of his first period. The Midsummer Marriage is clearly a work he is deeply fond of; he still recalls the many staging difficulties of its first performance, surprised at the confusion it caused. When discussing all the celebratory concerts taking place last month, he said he was looking forward even more to the new production of The Midsummer Marriage at Covent Garden in 1996.

By the mid-1950s, Tippett was a major figure in British music, the only composer to challenge the preminence of Benjamin Britten. Tippett and Britten enjoyed a close friendship but one that was changed by Britten's more immediate success. Tippett recalls how after the success of Peter Grimes in 1945, the two composers grew more distant.

In the late 1950s they made an interesting comparison. Britten was entering his final creative phase and in works such as Curlew River (1964) or Death in Venice (1973) his musical craft became more focused, musical effects being achieved with far less material. By contrast with this sense of withdrawal, Tippet's world was expanding; his sphere of reference becoming more topical with the modern world, in all its contradictions.

The electicism of Tippett's more recent pieces, which have not shied from incorporating popular musical elements, has unsettled many. In part this greater breadth is due to a strong American influence - a culture of which Tippett is greatly fond - and the music of composers such as Ives and Gershwin played a vital part in expanding his horizons. In many of his works, Tippett has investigated the problems and difficulties of modern life, offsetting music of struggle with music of consolation. Thus in Tippett's Symphony no 3, Beethoven's Ninth meets the blues; in his third opera, The Knot Garden, a Schubert song is confronted with an electric guitar while in New Year (1989), Tippett became the first 84-year-old composer to write rap. What is remarkable about such pieces, is not simply the strength of the musical imagination, but the courage and honesty of a composer whose music confronts every aspect of modern life, with real New World exuberance.

Julian Philips is a composer and part-time lecturer in music, Guildhall School of Music, London.

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