Magazine | July 29, 2019, Issue

Michael Tippett’s ‘Timeless Music in Time’

Sir Michael Tippett (Ron Scherl/Contributor/Getty Images)
Remembering the late composer’s achievement

In the years before his death, Sir Michael Tippett (1905–1998) had become that mixed blessing: a national treasure. His appearances on stage after performances were great occasions — and sights — in themselves. By then this man who had been born before the age of the wireless seemed to exude a magus-like quality. A contemporary of Benjamin Britten, he had also been a friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and along with Elliott Carter seemed the last of the century’s musical emissaries. But mostly he was loved for his music, which bubbled till the end from a wellspring of the deepest conviction. He once said that the role of the artist in his time should be to conjure “images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty.”

Not all his contemporaries composed as though they agreed this was their role. But in his own music and life, Tippett radiated a musical vision of unequaled generosity. I knew him a little towards the end and can still recall the thrill when he was in the room. Back then he was venerated for his four symphonies, five string quartets, and five operas, among other works. Even people who knew nothing else by him would know his oratorio A Child of Our Time, written during the war in which Tippett had briefly gone to prison as a conscientious objector. That work continues to find audiences around the world who warm to its message of anti-violence, conciliation, and final hope. The arrangements of Negro spirituals with which he punctuated the work (taking the model from the chorales in Bach’s Passions) came to be performed in their own right, and in recent years sometimes seemed to be Tippett’s firmest hold on posterity.

The warning signs were there from the moment that a few score of us gathered at the crematorium in Middlesex. There were readings from the poetry of his friend T. S. Eliot, and performances of movements from the string quartets of Beethoven and Tippett. But already it felt as though a cold had set in not just on the man but on the whole world he had offered. His devoted publishers, Schott Music, have done what they can to keep his reputation alive. But it has sometimes seemed as though the gifts he had given the world had been forgotten, mislaid, or returned to sender.

The centenary celebrations came too soon for a true appraisal. A Selected Letters published in that same year of 2005 did little to help, not least because they enhanced the picture of his ideological naïveté. In this regard as in much else Tippett had one of those minds that are almost fatally absorbent. His political and literary enthusiasms as well as his music were so open to new ideas and sounds (leading him to incorporate jazz and even pop into his later works) that he was never far off accusations of being scatterbrained.

Now, more than two decades after his death, Oliver Soden (born 1990) has produced a full-length biography. There have been musicological studies before, but Soden’s is the first comprehensive account of the life, with access to the papers, correspondence, and surviving friends. And perhaps it is important that it is written by someone who was too young to have known Tippett and so approaches his subject with a fresh eye as well as enthusiasm. In any case, the book is expertly done.

One settled consensus from which Soden does not deviate is that Tippett was one of those artists who grow younger with age. Certainly, the music did not flow easily from the start. While the notes came to Britten (with whom he would inevitably be compared) like breathing, they came to Tippett through toil. Ten years after most people would have cleared the place, he returned to the Royal College of Music to work on his counterpoint. As a student, he copied out whole Beethoven symphonies to try to understand from the inside how his idol had done it. All this work and sweat kept him on the breadline for some years. But he survived an apprenticeship that went on into early middle age because he had a deep, powerful musical vision. You might say a calling.

After making himself useful in local amateur enterprises and then at Morley College in London (where he began the revival of interest in Purcell), Tippett started breaking through. In the First String Quartet and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, among other works from the late 1930s, the early Tippett style emerged. It was reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, Finzi, and others but had its own characteristics. Writing so enthusiastic that it not only tumbled across bar lines but did so in plangent and unpredictable melodies that rolled out across his slow movements. He first extended the tradition from which he came and then escaped it.

Everyone has his own tastes, of course, but for me perhaps the sweetest spot in the Tippett canon came in the 1940s and 1950s. The period was mostly taken up by the composition — without commission — of The Midsummer Marriage. The opera baffled some of its earliest audiences at Covent Garden, where it was eventually staged in 1955. But like other works of his, the piece has become clearer as the decades have gone on. The plot itself, with a libretto by the composer (a habit that caused more excoriation than praise), remains hard to summarize. Yet from the opening bars it is impossible not to be enveloped by the work’s sound-world. It is music of almost unbelievable generosity. I recently listened to it again as I was driving through the English countryside on a spring day and caught myself emitting a shout of joy during the “Ritual Dances” of Act II. Like a lot of Tippett, The Midsummer Marriage is slightly batty, packed with accretions from Jung, Eliot, Yeats, and a hundred other enthusiasms, but the results are like the heat that emanates from a source of pure light.

Tippett’s vocal and instrumental writing often made extreme demands, and performers and critics often found his premieres tricky. One such case came with the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953). Yet it is one of the pieces I have tended to suggest that newcomers start off with. Firstly because the complex contrapuntal writing shows off Tippett’s extraordinary technical skill, but more for the glorious closing section, in which the two solo violins swoop and soar above the rest of the string orchestra. It is like a more ecstatic version of “The Lark Ascending.”

Despite the increasing receptiveness — some might say wackiness — Tippett was a deep and perceptive man. As the century progressed, and darkened, he knew that an English pastoral vision would not suffice. Schiller once advised, “Live with your century, but do not be its creature.” Whether or not he knew the quote, Tippett spent his century navigating the boundaries of that advice, not infrequently slipping over onto one side or the other. In the early part of his career perhaps he was too much of the time and place into which he was born. Later he could sometimes seem to be too much a creature of his era. But he looked out on the world with increasingly youthful eyes, taking in the sounds, idioms, and concerns of the periods in which he found himself.

On the cusp of that change came the second opera, King Priam, premiered in 1962. The work is concise, gripping, and terrifying. Nobody who hears it can forget Achilles’ war cry at the end of Act II, or Priam’s horror-filled response, “Oh Hector, oh Troy.” I remember the audience at an English National Opera revival in the 1990s heading to the intermission with visible beads of perspiration. At the very end of the work, as the tragedy is about to reach its climax, Hermes interrupts to directly address the audience. Warning them not to try to discern all the lessons of life from a story, he ends up singing a heavenly ode to the divinity of music itself, in particular to “a timeless music played in time.” That became the search of Tippett’s last decades. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. For me, the hits make up for the misses, but admirers disagree on which are which.

Personally I have never warmed to the austere sounds of the Concerto for Orchestra (1963), though I know people who reckon it his masterpiece. Likewise the sound-world of the third opera, The Knot Garden (1970), with its electric-guitar infusions, leaves me slightly alienated. Soden regards the Third Symphony (1972) as the masterpiece. It takes some getting used to, not least in the segments that quote and then explode one of the most famous moments in Beethoven 9. But once you have made peace with what he is doing, it is impossible not at least to admire the ambition. The challenge for mankind at this point — Tippett sees — is how to live with what we know. After the camps and gulags, Beethoven’s and Schiller’s dream of universal brotherhood lies in ruins. What are we to do? As Tippett shows in a knottily painful, interrogative dialogue between solo soprano and flugelhorn, one answer is that in the 20th century we sing the blues.

By this stage American conductors and orchestras had begun to take Tippett to their heart, and he took up America in kind. The composer clearly benefited enormously from his travels and collaborations in the country. And until reading Soden, I had not heard about the Child of our Time performance in the U.S. that Tippett attended where, to his astonishment, the audience sang along with the spirituals, as Bach’s congregation would have joined in with the Passion chorales.

Had Tippett lived a relatively normal lifespan, the blues would have been his finale. But longevity allowed him a career in almost perfect sonata form, with a final period that recapitulated some of the joy of the first without ever trying to evade what had come between. In his final years he finally set his beloved Yeats; composed a triple concerto, which is one of the last works to sing an unabashed melody without cliché; and then a final work (The Rose Lake) premiered in 1995 on his 90th birthday. What an evening that was, with the Barbican Hall in London packed for what we all knew was Tippett’s swan song. And what a piece to go out on. A song without words inspired by a lake the composer had seen in Senegal that changed color with the sun. It is a visionary work, in which the sky and lake sing to each other and refract and dance in the light before the lake finally sings itself to sleep.

There were costs, naturally. The sheer number of notes in each score necessitated a drive that could be selfish, even cold. Personal relationships suffered. “That’s that” was one of his closing-off phrases. There was serious steel there, more than some of his admirers might want to know. He admitted in a letter, on closing one of the great relationships of his life, that it “will be seen to have been forced by the music. As ever, everyone goes to the wall.” Whether or not everyone around him was willing to pay that price, he always was, because he knew he had something to say and felt as compelled as anyone could be to say it.

On a tour of America during the 1970s he chanced to hear the slow movement of a Beethoven quartet in a television documentary. Soden mentions how Tippett was “knocked sideways” by it, saying, “I must before I die find that sound in our own time!” If he did find that sound — as some of us believe — then he deserves his place. And if he fell only just short, then what better goal to fall only just short of?

This article appears as “‘A Timeless Music in Time’” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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