Sir Michael Tippett
born on 2/1/1905 in London, England, United Kingdom
died on 8/1/1998 in London, England, United Kingdom
Sir Michael Kemp Tippett OM CH CBE (2 January 1905 – 8 January 1998) was an English composer who rose to prominence during and immediately after the Second World War. In his lifetime he was sometimes ranked with his contemporary Benjamin Britten as one of the leading British composers of the 20th century. Among his best-known works are the oratorio A Child of Our Time, the orchestral Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and the opera The Midsummer Marriage.
Tippett's talent developed slowly. He withdrew or destroyed his earliest compositions, and was 30 before any of his works were published. Until the mid-to-late 1950s his music was broadly lyrical in character, before changing to a more astringent and experimental style. New influences, including those of jazz and blues after his first visit to America in 1965, became increasingly evident in his compositions. While Tippett's stature with the public continued to grow, not all critics approved of these changes in style, some believing that the quality of his work suffered as a consequence. From around 1976 Tippett's late works began to reflect the works of his youth through a return to lyricism. Although he was much honoured in his lifetime, critical judgement on Tippett's legacy has been uneven, the greatest praise being generally reserved for his earlier works. His centenary in 2005 was a muted affair; apart from the few best-known works, his music has been performed infrequently in the 21st century.
Having briefly embraced communism in the 1930s, Tippett avoided identifying with any political party. A pacifist after 1940, he was imprisoned in 1943 for refusing to carry out war-related duties required by his military exemption. His initial difficulties in accepting his homosexuality led him in 1939 to Jungian psychoanalysis; the Jungian dichotomy of "shadow" and "light" remained a recurring factor in his music. He was a strong advocate of music education, and was active for much of his life as a radio broadcaster and writer on music.
The Tippett family originated in Cornwall. Michael Tippett's grandfather, George Tippett, left the county in 1854 to make his fortune in London through property speculation and other business schemes. A flamboyant character, he had a strong tenor voice that was a popular feature at Christian revivalist meetings. In later life his business enterprises faltered, leading to debts, prosecution for fraud, and a term of imprisonment. His son Henry, born in 1858, was Michael's father. A lawyer by training, he was successful in business and was independently wealthy by the time of his marriage in April 1903. Unusually for his background and upbringing, Henry Tippett was a progressive liberal and a religious sceptic.
Henry Tippett's bride was Isabel Kemp, from a large upper-middle class family based in Kent. Among her mother's cousins was Charlotte Despard, a well-known campaigner for women's rights, suffragism, and Irish home rule. Despard was a powerful influence on the young Isabel, who was herself briefly imprisoned after participating in an illegal suffragette protest in Trafalgar Square. Although neither she nor Henry was musical, she had inherited an artistic talent from her mother, who had exhibited at the Royal Academy. After their marriage the couple settled outside London in Eastcote where two sons were born, the second, Michael, on 2 January 1905.
Childhood and schooling
Shortly after Michael's birth, the family moved to Wetherden in Suffolk. Michael's education began in 1909, with a nursery governess and various private tutors who followed a curriculum that included piano lessons—his first formal contact with music. There was a piano in the house, on which he "took to improvising crazily ... which I called 'composing', though I had only the vaguest notion of what that meant". In September 1914 Michael became a boarder at Brookfield Preparatory School in Swanage, Dorset. He spent four years there, at one point earning notoriety by writing an essay that challenged the existence of God. In 1918 he won a scholarship to Fettes College, a boarding school in Edinburgh, where he studied the piano, sang in the choir, and began to learn to play the pipe organ. The school was not a happy place; sadistic bullying of the younger pupils was commonplace. When Michael revealed to his parents in March 1920 that he had formed a homosexual relationship with another boy, they removed him. He transferred to Stamford School in Lincolnshire, where a decade previously Malcolm Sargent had been a pupil.
Around this time Henry Tippett decided to live in France, and the house in Wetherden was sold. The 15-year-old Michael and his brother Peter remained at school in England, travelling to France for their holidays. Michael found Stamford much more congenial than Fettes, and developed both academically and musically. He found an inspiring piano teacher in Frances Tinkler, who introduced him to the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Sargent had maintained his connection with the school, and was present when Tippett and another boy played a C minor Concerto for Two Harpsichords by Bach on pianos with a local string orchestra. Tippett sang in the chorus when Sargent directed a local performance of Robert Planquette's operetta Les Cloches de Corneville. Despite his parents' wish that he follow an orthodox path by proceeding to Cambridge University, Tippett had firmly decided on a career as a composer, a prospect that alarmed them and was discouraged by his headmaster and by Sargent.
By mid-1922 Tippett had developed a rebellious streak. His overt atheism particularly troubled the school, and he was required to leave. He remained in Stamford in private lodgings, while continuing lessons with Tinkler and with the organist of the local St Mary's Church. He also began studying Charles Villiers Stanford's book Musical Composition which, he later wrote, "became the basis of all my compositional efforts for decades to come". In 1923 Henry Tippett was persuaded that some form of musical career, perhaps as a concert pianist, was possible, and agreed to support his son in a course of study at the Royal College of Music (RCM). After an interview with the college principal, Sir Hugh Allen, Tippett was accepted despite his lack of formal entry qualifications.
Royal College of Music
Tippett began at the RCM in the summer term of 1923, when he was 18 years old. At the time, his biographer Meirion Bowen records, "his aspirations were Olympian, though his knowledge rudimentary". Life in London widened his musical awareness, especially the Proms at the Queen's Hall, opera at Covent Garden (where he saw Dame Nellie Melba's farewell performance in La bohème) and the Diaghilev Ballet. He heard Chaliapin sing, and attended concerts conducted by, among others, Stravinsky and Ravel—the last-named "a tiny man who stood bolt upright and conducted with what to me looked like a pencil". Tippett overcame his initial ignorance of early music by attending Palestrina masses at Westminster Cathedral, following the music with the help of a borrowed score.
At the RCM, Tippett's first composition tutor was Charles Wood, who used the models of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven to instil a solid understanding of musical forms and syntax. When Wood died in 1926, Tippett chose to study with C.H. Kitson, whose pedantic approach and lack of sympathy with Tippett's compositional aims strained the relationship between teacher and pupil.[n 1] Tippett studied conducting with Sargent and Adrian Boult, finding the latter a particularly empathetic mentor—he let Tippett stand with him on the rostrum during rehearsals and follow the music from the conductor's score. By this means Tippett became familiar with the music of composers then new to him, such as Delius and Debussy, and learned much about the sounds of orchestral instruments.
In 1924 Tippett became the conductor of an amateur choir in the Surrey village of Oxted. Although he saw this initially as a means of advancing his knowledge of English madrigals, his association with the choir lasted many years. Under his direction it combined with a local theatrical group, the Oxted and Limpsfield Players, to give performances of Vaughan Williams's opera The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains and of Tippett's own adaptation of an 18th-century ballad opera, The Village Opera. He passed his Bachelor of Music (BMus) exams, at his second attempt, in December 1928. Rather than continuing to study for a doctorate, Tippett decided to leave the academic environment. The RCM years had brought him intense and lasting friendships with members of both sexes, in particular with Francesca Allinson and David Ayerst.
On leaving the RCM, Tippett settled in Oxted to continue his work with the choir and theatrical group and to compose. To support himself he taught French at Hazelwood, a small preparatory school in Limpsfield, which provided him with a salary of £80 a year and a cottage. Also teaching at the school was Christopher Fry, the future poet and playwright who later collaborated with Tippett on several of the composer's early works.
In February 1930 Tippett provided the incidental music for a performance by his theatrical group of James Elroy Flecker's Don Juan, and in October he directed them in his own adaptation of Stanford's opera The Travelling Companion. His compositional output was such that on 5 April 1930 he gave a concert in Oxted consisting entirely of his own works—a Concerto in D for flutes, oboe, horns and strings; settings for tenor of poems by Charlotte Mew; Psalm in C for chorus and orchestra, with a text by Christopher Fry; piano variations on the song "Jockey to the Fair"; and a string quartet. Professional soloists and orchestral players were engaged, and the concert was conducted by David Moule-Evans, a friend from the RCM. Despite encouraging comments from The Times and the Daily Telegraph, Tippett was deeply dissatisfied with the works, and decided that he needed further tuition. He withdrew the music, and in September 1930 re-enrolled at the RCM for a special course of study in counterpoint with R. O. Morris, an expert on 16th-century music. This second RCM period, during which he learned to write fugues in the style of Bach and received additional tuition in orchestration from Gordon Jacob, was central to Tippett's eventual discovery of what he termed his "individual voice".
On 15 November 1931 Tippett conducted his Oxted choir in a performance of Handel's Messiah, using choral and orchestral forces close to Handel's original intentions. Such performances were rare at that time, and the event attracted considerable interest.
Friendships, politics and music
In mid-1932 Tippett moved to a cottage in neighbouring Limpsfield, provided by friends as a haven in which he could concentrate on composition.[n 2] His friendships with Ayerst and Allinson had opened up new cultural and political vistas. Through Ayerst he met W. H. Auden, who in due course introduced him to T. S. Eliot. Although no deep friendship developed with either poet, Tippett came to consider Eliot as his "spiritual father". Ayerst also introduced him to a young artist, Wilfred Franks. By this time Tippett was coming to terms with his homosexuality, while not always at ease with it. Franks provided him with what he described as "the deepest, most shattering experience of falling in love". This intense relationship ran alongside a political awakening. Tippett's natural sympathies had always been leftish, and became more consciously so from his inclusion in Allinson's circle of left-wing activists. As a result, he gave up his teaching position at Hazelwood to become the conductor of the South London Orchestra, a project financed by the London County Council and made up of unemployed musicians. Its first public concert was held on 5 March 1933 at Morley College, later to become Tippett's professional base.
To beat the devil's man
To rob the rich, to help the poor
By Robin's ten-year plan."
Robin Hood, interpreted by Tippett as a hero of the 1930s class war.
In the summers of 1933 and 1934 Tippett took charge of musical activities at miners' work camps near Boosbeck in the north of England. These camps were run by a munificent local landowner, Major Pennyman, to give unemployed miners a sense of purpose and independence. In 1933 Tippett arranged the staging of a shortened version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with locals playing the main parts, and the following year he provided the music for a new folk opera, Robin Hood, with words by Ayerst, himself and Ruth Pennyman. Both works proved hugely popular with their audiences, and although most of the music has disappeared, some of Robin Hood was revived by Tippett for use in his Birthday Suite for Prince Charles of 1948. In October 1934 Tippett and the South London Orchestra performed at a centenary celebration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as part of a grand Pageant of Labour at the Crystal Palace.
Tippett was not formally a member of any political party or group until 1935, when he joined the British Communist Party at the urging of his cousin, Phyllis Kemp. This membership was brief; the influence of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution had led him to embrace Trotskyism, while the party maintained a strict Stalinist line. Tippett resigned after a few months when he saw no chance of converting his local party to his Trotskyist views. According to his obituarist J.J. Plant, Tippett then joined the Bolshevik-Leninist Group within the Labour Party, where he continued to advocate Trotskyism until at least 1938. Although Tippett's radical instincts always remained strong, he was aware that excessive political activism would distract him from his overriding objective of becoming recognised as a composer. A significant step towards professional recognition came in December 1935, when his String Quartet No. 1 was performed by the Brosa Quartet at the Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill, London. This work, which he dedicated to Franks, is the first in the recognised canon of Tippett's music.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Tippett released two further works: the Piano Sonata No. 1, first performed by Phyllis Sellick at the Queen Mary Hall, London, on 11 November 1938, and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, which was not performed until 1940. In a climate of increasing political and military tension, Tippett's compositional efforts were overwhelmed by an emotional crisis. When his relationship with Franks ended acrimoniously in August 1938 he was thrown into doubt and confusion about both his homosexuality and his worth as an artist. He was saved from despair when, at Ayerst's suggestion, he undertook a course of Jungian analysis with the psychotherapist John Layard. Through an extended course of therapy, Layard provided Tippett with the means to analyse and interpret his dreams. Tippett's biographer Ian Kemp describes this experience as "the major turning point in [his] life", both emotionally and artistically. His particular discovery from dream analysis was "the Jungian 'shadow' and 'light' in the single, individual psyche ... the need for the individual to accept his divided nature and profit from its conflicting demands". This brought him to terms with his homosexuality, and he was able to pursue his creativity without being distracted by personal relationships. While still unsure of his sexuality, Tippett had considered marriage with Francesca Allinson, who had expressed the wish that they should have children together. After his psychotherapy he enjoyed several committed—and sometimes overlapping—same-sex relationships. Among the most enduring, and most tempestuous, was that with the artist Karl Hawker, whom he first met in 1941.
A Child of Our Time
While his therapy proceeded, Tippett was searching for a theme for a major work—an opera or an oratorio—that could reflect both the contemporary turmoil in the world and his own recent catharsis. Having briefly considered the theme of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, he based his work on a more immediate event: the murder in Paris of a German diplomat by a 17-year-old Jewish refugee, Herschel Grynszpan. This murder triggered Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), a coordinated attack on Jews and their property throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. Tippett hoped that Eliot would provide a libretto for the oratorio, and the poet showed interest. However, when Tippett presented him with a more detailed scenario, Eliot advised him to write his own text, suggesting that the poetic quality of the words might otherwise dominate the music. Tippett called the oratorio A Child of Our Time, taking the title from Ein Kind unserer Zeit, a contemporary protest novel by the Austro-Hungarian writer Ödön von Horváth. Within a three-part structure based on Handel's Messiah, Tippett took the novel step of using North American spirituals in place of the traditional chorales that punctuate oratorio texts. According to Kenneth Gloag's commentary, the spirituals provide "moments of focus and repose ... giving shape to both the musical and literary dimensions of the work". Tippett began composing the oratorio in September 1939, on the conclusion of his dream therapy and immediately after the outbreak of war.
Morley, war, imprisonment
With the South London Orchestra temporarily disbanded because of the war, Tippett returned to teaching at Hazelwood. In October 1940 he accepted the post of Director of Music at Morley College, just after its buildings were almost completely destroyed by a bomb. Tippett's challenge was to rebuild the musical life of the college, using temporary premises and whatever resources he could muster. He revived the Morley College Choir and orchestra, and arranged innovative concert programmes that typically mixed early music (Orlando Gibbons, Monteverdi, Dowland), with contemporary works by Stravinsky, Hindemith and Bartók.
He continued the college's established association with the music of Purcell; a performance in November 1941 of Purcell's Ode to St. Cecilia, with improvised instruments and rearrangements of voice parts, attracted considerable attention. The music staff at Morley was augmented by the recruitment of refugee musicians from Europe, including Walter Bergmann, Mátyás Seiber, and Walter Goehr who took charge of the college orchestra.
A Child of Our Time was finished in 1941 and put aside with no immediate prospects of performance. Tippett's Fantasia on a Theme of Handel for piano and orchestra was performed at the Wigmore Hall in March 1942, with Sellick again the soloist, and the same venue saw the première of the composer's String Quartet No. 2 a year later. The first recording of Tippett's music, the Piano Sonata No. 1 played by Sellick, was issued in August 1941. The recording was well received by the critics, Wilfrid Mellers predicting a leading role for the composer in the future of English music. In 1942, Schott Music began to publish Tippett's works, establishing an association that continued until the end of the composer's life.
The question of Tippett's liability for war service remained unresolved until mid-1943. In November 1940 he had formalised his pacifism by joining the Peace Pledge Union and applying for registration as a conscientious objector. His case was heard by a tribunal in February 1942, when he was assigned to non-combatant duties. Tippett rejected such work as an unacceptable compromise with his principles and in June 1943, after several further hearings and statements on his behalf from distinguished musical figures, he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment in HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs. He served two months, and although thereafter he was technically liable to further charges for failing to comply with the terms set by his tribunal, the authorities left him alone.
Recognition and controversy
On his release, Tippett returned to his duties at Morley, where he boosted the college's Purcell tradition by persuading Alfred Deller, the countertenor, to sing several Purcell odes at a concert on 21 October 1944—the first modern use of a countertenor in Purcell's music. Tippett formed a fruitful musical friendship with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, for whom he wrote the cantata Boyhood's End for tenor and piano. Encouraged by Britten, Tippett made arrangements for the first performance of A Child of Our Time, at London's Adelphi Theatre on 19 March 1944. Goehr conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Morley's choral forces were augmented by the London Regional Civil Defence Choir. Pears sang the tenor solo part, and other soloists were borrowed from Sadler's Wells Opera. The work was well received by critics and the public, and eventually became one of the most frequently performed large-scale choral works of the post-Second World War period, in Britain and overseas. Tippett's immediate reward was a commission from the BBC for a motet, The Weeping Babe, which became his first broadcast work when it was aired on 24 December 1944. He also began to give regular radio talks on music.
In 1946 Tippett organised at Morley the first British performance of Monteverdi's Vespers, adding his own organ Preludio for the occasion. Tippett's compositions in the immediate postwar years included his First Symphony, performed under Sargent in November 1945, and the String Quartet No. 3, premiered in October 1946 by the Zorian Quartet. His main creative energies were increasingly devoted to his first major opera, The Midsummer Marriage. During the six years from 1946 he composed almost no other music, apart from the Birthday Suite for Prince Charles (1948).