Vagueness

Hans Keller

  • Michael Tippett: An Introductory Study by David Matthews
    Faber, 112 pp, £5.95, December 1979, ISBN 0 571 10954 3
  • Tippett and his Operas by Eric Walter White
    Barrie and Jenkins, 142 pp, £7.97, January 1980, ISBN 0 214 20573 8

Whereas clarity does not always produce clarity in its recipient, confusion invariably inspires confusion. C.G. Jung, a mind of confused genius, was a hell-send for Michael Tippett, a veritable genius of confusion – who now, celebrating the 75th year of his consistently lively life, inspires sundry confusions in his commentators, and even in those who comment on his commentators: ‘Michael Tippett’s music resists close analysis,’ declares the distinguished Hugo Cole in the opening sentence of his review of the two books here under consideration. For one thing, ‘close analysis’ is a pleonasm, proving the writer at least momentarily incapable of analysing his own thought, and never mind Tippett’s.

For another, in principle, nothing resists analysis, if the analysis is good enough; and everything does in proportion as it isn’t. ‘In the face of art,’ Freud once said, ‘psychoanalysis has to lay down its arms’ (significant metaphor: die Waffen strecken). That’s different. In the face of Tippett, Hugo Cole lays down any analytic arms, and thus confuses the very concept of analysis, or else the nature of Tippett’s music, which would have to be different from any other music: it would have to lack elements, components, essence – which, I am sure, is the last thing Mr Cole wants to suggest. No, he simply wants to honour vagueness by vagueness.

The present commentator refuses to play the game. He recognises Tippett’s genius, even though he may not sufficiently understand it. But he also recognises confusion and vagueness for what they are – an inadequacy. Good or bad, for better or worse, this review isn’t worth your attention unless you accept that there is no substitute for, no viable alternative to, clarity. According to David Matthews, Tippett himself has come close to this view – ever since the early Sixties, when he ‘joined Britten in a liking for clear, uncluttered textures’. Did he? And has he thus continued? On and off. His most recent, Fourth Quartet (1977-8) is a supreme test: string-quartet texture stands or falls with its clarity. Mr Matthews does not yet seem to know the work; all he says about it is that it ‘is just finished’. Well, its texture stumbles – not-withstanding its inspirations. No insult meant: it happens in the best circles (Brahms, Schumann), which are not always the best quartet circles.

Both musically and biographically, David Matthews and Eric Walter White are quite exceptionally well informed, and never get their facts wrong – even though they are not beyond getting their right facts mixed up. As we know from the recently published second edition of White’s Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works, he is a factual fanatic to the extent of sacrificing any thought of his own which he might suspect of subjectivity to his exposition of as many objective facts as he can get in, so long as he suspects them of the remotest relevance. But although Mr Matthews is more of a practical musician (in fact, a highly gifted composer), his musical precision is not, verbally, superior to Mr White’s, so that the final score sheet shows a fascinating draw – a result which is eventually clinched by one own goal each, scored by White and Matthews in their respective descriptions of the beginning of The Knot Garden, Tippett’s third opera. White: ‘The first act opens with a kind of prologue ... The orchestra presents a 12-note theme with many unison or octave couplings, which gives the momentary illusion that the music may be about to exploit the serial technique, but this is by no means the case. The chromatic storm subsides ...’ Matthews: ‘the opera begins with a 12-note row, which recurs several times, though there are only exploratory attempts at using it structurally ...’

You are not logged in