Sunday 9 October 2016

Michael Tippett (1905-1998)

I came across the composer Michael Tippett mainly via his collection of essays Moving into Aquarius (1959), which I found in the English bookshop in Athens on a prolonged holiday when I ran short of reading matter: the book seemed to 'call out' to me from its high shelf, and I re-read it intently over the next couple of years. I even wrote to Tippett to thank him and received a courteous and personal reply, expressing astonishment that the book had come to me via Greece.

The following year I became friends and flat-mate with a music student who was already a expert in Tippett and had met him several times - being a neighbour in Wiltshire: he took me through the entirety of Tippets recorded works then available (1980) - sometimes with a score to follow.

At that time Tippett became for me like a English Beethoven combined with Goethe! - an artist philosopher for our time. The peak was when I travelled overnight to attend Tippett's 75th birthday concert in London - missing just an afternoon of lectures, travelling the 300 miles to London by train for the concert, after which I briefly met the great man, then back by a slow train at midnight to attend the nine o'clock ward rounds the next morning... Heroic dedication!

However, when I was removed from the intense hothouse atmosphere of that phase in my life; my opinion of Tippett became much moderated - I remained fascinated by the best of his musical (and prose) output up to about 1960 (when he was aged 55) - but by nothing after that point. Indeed, my deepest appreciation is reserved for just four works:

1. The Concerto for double string orchestra - the slow movement of which is linked above.

2 The Fantasia on a theme by Correlli.

3. The oratorio - A Child of our Time; and

4. The opera - a Midsummer Marriage - including the Ritual Dances which are also performed as a separate concert piece.

These works are the core of Tippett's achievement; and they have an unique quality of serious, aspiring lyricism - which is intensely English (despite Tippett's cosmopolitan eclecticism, and in particular a deep affinity with German culture).

I should point out that in his overt stance, Tippett was a typical British upper class radical - variously a Communist, Pacifist, Sexual Liberationist and Revolutionary and into every 'good' Establishment cause under the sun. In appreciating his qualities, such aspects need to be set-aside (as they do for almost all great artists of the past 200 years, especially). What then remains?

For me, firstly his intense desire to heal the alienated and fractured soul of modern Man, through the creation of moments of exalted beauty and hope. Secondly, his writings on the creative work of a 'modern' artist' in relation to society - the struggle for an integrity which also connects with genuine problems. 3. Thirdly his example as an all-round 'Denker und Dichter' type - a thinker and poet; his (early) life of rural seclusion and patient working.

Overall, Tippett's vision has comprehensively failed and been rejected; and in the thirty-five plus years since I began to engage with his work its possibility has moved from unlikely to impossible. But however misguided and chaotic, his striving (up to circa 1960) was an honest effort to tackle the fundamental problem of his time - as he understood it; and to create beauty - so far as he was able; and for such reasons the slender body of work named above has permanent value. 



Anonymous said...

I was not aware of him as an essayist - and, indeed, somehow have showed little enough curiosity about him, given how I enjoyed performing A Child of Our Time and found it intriguing (though I have not read critical literature about it, either)!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Unknown said...

I agree with most of your piece !! Though I still think the 2nd symphony,piano concerto,concerto for orchestra are great works. I really can't take third and fourth symphs, the music and pseudo philosophy are so dreadful !! You might enjoy robin Holloway's critiques of the later Tippett published by continuum if I remember correctly. These days I thoroughly enjoy birtwistle and Elliott carter and Wolfgang ruhm. All the,vest. Warren