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His Own Sort of OutsiderPhilip Clark
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Vol. 42 No. 14 · 16 July 2020

His Own Sort of Outsider

Philip Clark

5254 words
Michael Tippett: The Biography 
by Oliver Soden.
Weidenfeld, 750 pp., £25, April 2019, 978 1 4746 0602 8
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Bythe time his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, had its premiere at Covent Garden in 1955, Michael Tippett was considered, alongside Benjamin Britten, the most significant and original British composer of his generation. Yet he was also the natural outsider in a scene that as well as Britten (born 1913), included William Walton (1902) and Lennox Berkeley (1903), with the reassuring presence of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872) hovering over them all. Whether Tippett ever entered the pantheon, or even deserves to, remains an open question for some. His Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939) might slot seamlessly into a concert programme of English string pieces like Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings and Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, but by the time of his third opera, The Knot Garden, first performed in 1970, Tippett was using an electric guitar, keyboard and drum kit to pump the liberating funk of jazz, rock and blues through his tightly constructed score.

Tippett’s work gleefully upended assumptions about the music Great English Composers ought to be writing, and implied that British new music – equally suspicious of European modernism and anything American, whether John Cage or Janis Joplin – wasn’t a club worth joining. Although he had no desire to take up 12-tone composition techniques, Arnold Schoenberg’s music appealed to him intellectually and he engaged with it seriously – in noticeable contrast to Vaughan Williams. Tippett was enthusing about English Renaissance music – Henry Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tallis – twenty years before the Early Music revival of the 1950s. He came to revere Beethoven and Stravinsky, adored the visionary American composer Charles Ives, and distrusted the postcard folksiness of British composers like Finzi and Delius. When it came to vernacular music, Tippett invariably turned to America. Ragtime jitterbugged through the last movement of his Piano Sonata No. 1, completed as early as 1938, and spirituals were threaded through his oratorio A Child of Our Time. The last movement of his Third Symphony (1972) was built around his favourite jazz/blues record – Bessie Smith’s classic ‘St Louis Blues’ from 1925, which featured a young Louis Armstrong playing cornet.

This collision of models meant that Tippett’s music tended to develop through rupture and disjoint: the idea of combining disparate strands to form a neatly arranged whole never appealed to him. The English musical establishment thought it embarrassing that a man in his fifties and sixties – and then his seventies and eighties – should be messing around with rock music and incorporating American youth slang into his librettos: this wasn’t the way an heir apparent to Elgar and Vaughan Williams ought to behave. His compositions had entered a period of dramatic decline, his critics said, and were the product of an eccentric amateur clearly out of his depth. But the gossipy suspicion that his work lacked cool-headed professionalism – especially when compared to the rigorous compositions of his friend Britten – had been there as early as the first performance of his Second Symphony in 1958, which, through no fault of his, fell apart after the first few pages and had to be restarted.

Unease about Tippett’s musical direction turned too easily into ad hominem attacks on his competence, but he remained defiant. Tippett was his own sort of outsider, defined by his contradictions, to his last days. This onetime Trotskyist and conscientious objector – he went to prison for it in 1943 – became the most decorated composer of his generation, ending up as Sir Michael Tippett OM CH CBE. He considered himself bisexual, but although he formed deep emotional attachments to women, including the writer Francesca Allinson, the composer Priaulx Rainier and Vaughan Williams’s widow, Ursula, the relationships were never fully consummated. Meanwhile, he had romantic relationships with male partners far into old age. As a composer, this radical thinker about music preferred to work with traditional forms such as opera, string quartet, symphony and piano sonata, yet needed new techniques to express the sounds he heard in his head. His last major works, the Fifth String Quartet, Byzantium – a setting of W.B. Yeats for soprano and orchestra – and The Rose Lake (a fifth symphony for orchestra in all but name) flew off the page with improvisational abandon.

Oliver Soden​ was born in 1990, and his Life of Tippett is refreshingly free of old prejudices and stale arguments. (The previous standard text, Ian Kemp’s Tippett: The Composer and His Music, was sketchy on biographical detail and appeared in 1984, when there were still ten years of Tippett’s creative life to come.) Soden admires the early music, but argues consistently that Tippett’s essence is better revealed in his controversial later period. The biography opens in January 1913 when Tippett was eight, with his mother, Isabel, scaling Nelson’s Column during a suffragist protest, an act that landed her in Holloway Prison for two weeks. Shortly after her release Tippett made his first appearance in print, in the suffragist newspaper the Vote, asking why women did not enjoy the same privileges as men: ‘Some women are even bigger than the men – like my mother – and cleverer too,’ he wrote. Isabel’s identification with the suffrage movement, not the more militant suffragettes, gave her son his first exposure to the possibilities of protest through non-violent means.

Scrapes with the law were already part of the Tippett family mythology. In 1898 Tippett’s paternal grandfather, George, and his father, Henry, were arrested on charges of obtaining money under false pretences. Henry had an alibi and was discharged, but George was sentenced to nine months in Pentonville Prison, where he fell ill, dying shortly after being released early on compassionate grounds. Henry soon rebounded from the shame, acquiring a property portfolio in Central London. He then cashed in his investments to buy the lavish Hôtel Beau-Site, the second largest hotel in Cannes. It was around this time that he met Isabel. He supported her political activities wholeheartedly, while also becoming fervently sceptical about the Church and changing the name of the family home in the tiny Suffolk village of Wetherden from St Briavels to Rosemary Cottage. The Tippetts had a live-in cook, parlourmaid and governess, but Isabel made sure her boys were aware that others weren’t so fortunate. During trips to London, Michael and his brother, Peter, helped serve food in East End soup kitchens and were taken along to suffragist meetings. Tippett attended his first orchestral concert at this time: Henry Wood conducting music by Tchaikovsky at the Queen’s Hall. When the Great War began, the Hôtel Beau-Site was commandeered by the French government and turned into a hospital. This, together with the wartime rent controls imposed on landlords, made the family finances suddenly precarious. The maids, to whom Tippett was attached, were dismissed and at the age of nine he was packed off to boarding school.

To a young boy, cut off from his family and home comforts, boarding school represented a far greater trauma than anything happening in mainland Europe. Tippett’s first school, Brookfield House in Dorset, was disorientating enough, but the regime that awaited him at Fettes College in Edinburgh, where he went at 13, left deeper scars. Henry and Isabel rushed up to Edinburgh after one especially bad episode of sexual bullying, but Tippett’s reasonable enough assumption that they would withdraw him from the school was dashed. Instead he was sent back and faced reprisals: the staff made him identify boys who had engaged in homosexual activity, who were all expelled. The show trial was painfully compromising because he, too, had been involved in a homosexual relationship with a fellow pupil. To make matters worse, Henry and Isabel had now sold Rosemary Cottage and moved to Cannes. A further shock came with the news that his parents, eager to exorcise the memory of George’s prison sentence, had decided to assume Isabel’s maiden name: they were now the Kemps.

Tippett felt abandoned – his only memento of childhood was the Shakespeare anthology he had been allowed to keep when Henry sold off his library – and the feeling was compounded by resentment that Isabel had prioritised politics over her duties as a mother. But at the same time, there were signs of a growing confidence and self-reliance. At 15 he moved to Stamford School in Lincolnshire, but even before leaving Fettes, he had taken a stance against the culture of bullying there, letting it be known that he had no intention of behaving that way himself and encouraging others to follow his lead. At Stamford, he formed a strong bond with his new piano teacher, Mrs Tinkler, who had also taught the conductor Malcolm Sargent. She introduced him to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and although he never became an especially proficient pianist, he was good enough to perform as a soloist at the school concert, playing Bach’s Concerto in C for two keyboards and strings under the supervision of Sargent.

Life was much better at Stamford, but he clashed with authority once again by insisting that he was a pacifist and refusing to take part in compulsory Military Corps exercises. Confidence soon became independence. Tippett had decided that he wanted to devote his life to writing music and took his education into his own hands, overriding the objections of both school and parents. He learned Italian, entered himself for university entrance exams, and taught himself the rudiments of harmony and counterpoint. Studying at the Royal College of Music in London, he had decided, was his way forward.

Tippett arrived at the RCM in 1923 woefully underqualified to study composition. Once there, he found the lessons rigid and unimaginative; his fellow students were, he wrote, ‘a dreary lot’. He put together a programme of study, taking advantage of the best the RCM had to offer while opening himself up to ideas from elsewhere. He took conducting lessons from Sargent and charmed his way onto the podium to watch Adrian Boult conduct student orchestras. It wasn’t Boult’s technique as a conductor that interested him, he said later: ‘I was listening to the sound. I knew quite early I had an ear for texture.’ Composition lessons at the RCM were focused too narrowly, he felt, on the Germanic tradition, from Bach to Wagner. He had seen the British premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka at the Proms, and found it thrilling. Beethoven symphonies, too, came alive during Proms concerts in a way that could hardly be imagined by looking at the pages of a score. Beethoven’s shouts of liberty and joy were achieved, as Soden puts it, only ‘through a fierce struggle in which the listener is almost demanded to participate’. Tippett listened and learned. ‘Beethoven became my musical god and has remained so ever since,’ he wrote in his autobiography, Those Twentieth-Century Blues (1991).

In 1925, Tippett answered the call of a choral society in Oxted that was looking for a conductor, and led the choir in a concert of English madrigals. When the time came at college to study the music of the English Renaissance, he was ahead of the pack. He overlapped briefly with Britten at the RCM, but they didn’t meet until 1942, by which time Tippett was director of music at Morley College in South London, where he staged regular concerts and hired the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner, to sing the solo parts in music by Orlando Gibbons. Tippett and Britten had much in common. They were both keen to steer British music away from what they perceived as the folksy whimsy of Vaughan Williams, and had instead immersed themselves in Purcell. They also looked to European modernism (Britten’s request that the RCM library acquire a score of Schoenberg’s landmark Pierrot lunaire was scornfully rejected). Both men were in gay relationships and each clearly recognised elements of himself in the other. Their friendship, sometimes close and sometimes hanging by a thread, endured until Britten’s death in 1976. In his autobiography Tippett acknowledged that Britten had once proposed they go to bed together. Soden provides an unsparing account, including the forlorn detail that Britten hovered anxiously ‘in loaned pyjamas’, leaving Tippett feeling cold and withdrawn.

This joyless moment – and Tippett’s response to it: he found Britten ‘woefully un-grown-up in these ways’ – stands out even in a book that holds nothing back when it comes to Tippett’s sexual desires, experiences and fantasies. By the time they met, Britten, though nine years younger than Tippett, was already considered a major figure, with a catalogue of artfully crafted pieces such as Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, his Violin Concerto and the song cycle Les Illuminations. Tippett, by contrast, had barely got going. He had completed A Child of Our Time, but it wouldn’t be performed for another two years. His First String Quartet had reportedly terrified the Brosa Quartet, who were the first to perform it in 1935: they could be heard counting furiously in an effort to keep up with the lopsided rhythms and the excited chatter of Tippett’s notes.

Britten had cracked the elusive formula of writing music that flattered performers and could be readily appreciated by audiences. Tippett’s approach required a leap of faith. Britten’s Les Illuminations, completed in 1939, had an aloof, cool beauty, but Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, from the same year, hinted at Beethoven’s ‘fierce struggle’, which didn’t keep listeners at a distance so much as drag them into the middle of a musical argument. It couldn’t have been written without the influence of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but the crispness of its textures acknowledged Stravinsky, the string orchestra piece Dumbarton Oaks in particular. The lyricism of the slow movement was challenged by harmonic tensions derived from the blues, with the presence of a Northumbrian folk tune in the finale building a bridge between folk traditions rather than co-opting folksong as a lament for a lost England. The idea put about later, that Tippett was abandoning his earlier achievements by drawing explicitly on jazz and rock, was mistaken. That tendency was there from the start.

Tippett’s​ inclination to question authority had by his mid-twenties hardened into a radical political position. Two persuasive figures in his life had turned his mind towards Marxism: his cousin Phyllis Kemp, and the composer Alan Bush. He signed up, albeit briefly, to the Communist Party of Great Britain before switching his allegiance from Stalin to Trotsky. British communists regarded support for Trotsky, by then expelled from the Soviet Union, as ideologically suspect, and Tippett’s Trotskyism was an early example of his being the ‘wrong’ sort of outsider. Later in life, as accolades and honours rained down on him, Tippett would airbrush his early politics with a ruthlessness that would have made Stalin himself proud, but in the years leading up to the Second World War, revolutionary politics consumed his life and thinking. In 1934 he conducted performances of Bush’s The Pageant of Labour – a hearty celebration of socialism involving a cast of two thousand actors, singers, musicians and dancers – at the Crystal Palace, and began to advocate overthrowing the British state as a necessary means to right the wrongs of empire and capitalism. He also took part in a concert in celebration of the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler, an ally of Bertolt Brecht, whose music had been outlawed by the Nazis. But throughout this period of political commitment his own music slowed to a trickle.

There was an apparent incompatibility between Tippett’s advocacy of violent insurrection, on the one hand, and his avowed pacifism, on the other. His working thesis seems to have been that ending capitalism was a sure way of preventing war: better to use guns to overthrow those in power than to point them at soldiers, who were mere cogs in the machine. It was Tippett’s discovery of Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious (1912) that rescued him from vanishing further down the rabbit-hole of political fundamentalism. Characteristically, he took the task of studying Jung very seriously, even finding himself a Jungian analyst, John Layard, to whom he would serve up intimate dream diaries in the course of long, digressive letters. The Concerto for Double String Orchestra feels and sounds so different from generic English string pieces because, Soden argues, Tippett’s musical material retained the imprint of Marxist dialectics but with the ideology swept away by Jungian notions such as the struggle between masculine and feminine, conscious and unconscious, light and darkness. ‘The concerto marked Michael’s decisive move from political specificity to human universality,’ Soden writes.

Tippett had met T.S. Eliot through a mutual friend in 1935 and, with the piece that would become A Child of Our Time forming in his mind, wrote to Eliot to ask if he would consider writing a libretto. Both men loved Beethoven, but Eliot also had an ear for ragtime (coming from St Louis, where Scott Joplin lived, it was unavoidable) and had quoted a spiritual in Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot studied Tippett’s proposal, which included a skeleton outline of a libretto, but after months of procrastination, he persuaded Tippett to write his own words: ‘Don’t let the poets loose on your librettos, on anything, because they are going to do with words what your music should do.’ Tippett again listened and learned, and went on to write his own words for A Child of Our Time and for all five of his operas.

A Child of Our Time, which he completed in 1941, stretched the ideas in the Concerto for Double String Orchestra over a far grander canvas. He moulded the work around the structure of Handel’s Messiah, but the inspiration for it was the story of Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish boy who is thought to have died at Sachsenhausen, where he was sent after assassinating the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath to avenge the brutal treatment of his parents in Poland. The Nazis had used Grynszpan’s actions as a pretext for Kristallnacht. Tippett reinterpreted the story in Jungian terms – Grynszpan had projected his distress onto vom Rath rather than dealing with it internally – and made an important discovery: his own thoughts of political violence had been a symptom of a repressed inner rage. But ‘self-acceptance had to stop short of sinking into mundane serenity,’ Soden writes. ‘Acceptance came in embracing life’s troubles as necessary for creative work.’

The first performance of A Child of Our Time had to wait until Tippett had suffered the consequences of being a pacifist during the Second World War. He had registered as a conscientious objector in November 1940, refusing not merely to fight, but to do any civilian work that might contribute to the military effort. Prison was inevitable, but his trial didn’t take place until June 1943. ‘For the moment I write all I can, awaiting the evil day of prosecution,’ he said in 1942. But as the trial approached, his attitude changed perceptibly. Writing to his friend the journalist David Ayerst, Tippett declared himself ‘very much at peace and ready to go’.

On 21 August 1943, at 7.30 a.m. precisely, after serving two months of his three-month sentence, Tippett was released from Wormwood Scrubs. He was met by Britten and Pears, who would help to fund the premiere of A Child of Our Time. Cecil Beaton took a now famous publicity shot of Tippett, and the first performance took place as one of the London Philharmonic’s Sunday afternoon concerts at the Adelphi Theatre, on 19 March 1944 – against a backdrop of scenery for Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, which was playing in the evening. Tippett’s music, and his own libretto, spoke urgently and directly. Working spirituals into the piece proved to be a masterstroke. The published libretto sold out quickly, there were further performances and the piece was broadcast by the BBC.

This was the moment Tippett became a public composer. But it was also the moment when his peers began to express disdain for his work. His friendship with Alan Bush had never recovered from Tippett’s turn away from hard-left politics, and Bush found A Child of Our Time ‘emotional but very formless’. The well-liked John Ireland, a composer in his mid-sixties whose music sounded cosily Edwardian, claimed to be shocked at Tippett’s ‘utter ineptitude, and musical and psychological banality’. Bush’s musical judgment was, perhaps, affected by sour grapes, but Ireland was using precisely the language that British composers of a certain temperament would continue to employ of Tippett – partly, one suspects, in order to justify their own recycling of stale musical ideas.

The war years had been gruelling for Tippett. His father died in 1944 a few months after being injured in an air raid, and, a year later, Francesca Allinson, to whom he had been close, killed herself. Tippett was shattered. It took him five years before he felt able to channel his distress into a song cycle, The Heart’s Assurance, written for Pears and Britten and first performed by them in 1951. Allinson left Tippett a considerable sum of money, which he used to buy the rambling Tidebrook Manor in Sussex.

The work that emerged from his hibernation there was The Midsummer Marriage, an ambitious piece by anybody’s standards, which Tippett worked on without commission or any promise it would be performed. His plot – a young couple, Jenifer and Mark, embark on a journey to seek truth before they can marry – refracted elements of Mozart’s The Magic Flute through heady Jungian symbolism. Tippett was no doubt as surprised as anyone when Covent Garden agreed to stage the premiere, which took place in January 1955. A few weeks earlier he had turned fifty. His opera appeared in the same season as William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, also at Covent Garden, and Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Sadler’s Wells (the precursor to the English National Opera). Tippett discreetly left Berkeley’s piece at the interval (‘Awful, dowdy to the nth degree’) and found Walton’s score ‘horribly poor’. Walton was stalking the corridors at Covent Garden while Tippett’s piece was in rehearsal, airing conspiracy theories about homosexuals taking over Covent Garden. The two men, friendly in the outside world, were reduced to awkward, tongue-tied politeness.

Both Walton and Berkeley used tried and tested operatic techniques to retell an existing story, and even Britten, in his setting of Henry James, leaned heavily on technique when genuine inspiration dimmed. But in composing The Midsummer Marriage Tippett, typically, discovered the techniques that he needed to write the piece as he went along. The music shimmered and sparkled, but without an ounce of sentiment. Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg even, floated through the harmonies and orchestral textures. Tippett’s music was never just a convenient prop on which to hang a story; it had life and independence.

In the weeks leading up to the premiere, murmurings of disquiet at Covent Garden were leaked to the press. Joan Sutherland, not yet especially famous, who had been hired to sing Jenifer, thoroughly disapproved of everything to do with Tippett and his opera. The nuances of the music and the plot eluded her and she resorted to learning the notes parrot-fashion. ‘This opera baffles us, too, say singers – bewilderment at Covent Garden,’ the News Chronicle headlined its report. A belief took hold that the work had flopped artistically and critically, and later accounts, like Norman Lebrecht’s history of Covent Garden, peddle bizarre falsehoods about Tippett’s sleeping in a hovel and trudging around rehearsals in sandals. In fact, the reviews ranged from the damning to the laudatory. Soden adds the all important context that Tippett’s work of symbolism appeared just as tastes in theatre were shifting towards the realism of kitchen-sink drama: John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was staged a year later. News of Tippett’s extraordinary opera spread by word of mouth and it attracted a wider audience than was usual for classical music and opera. As ticket sales for Troilus and Cressida nosedived, The Midsummer Marriage held its own, and sales actually increased towards the end of the run.

For some Tippett fans, The Midsummer Marriage and the other works of that period, like the Piano Concerto, the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli and the Second Symphony, mark the peak of his inventiveness and expressiveness: everything that followed, including The Knot Garden and the Third Symphony, both infused with the blues and a jazzy punchdrunk violence, represents a retreat from the purity of that earlier period. Alexander Goehr described the Third Symphony as ‘loathsome’. Robin Holloway has spoken of the ‘tragic decline’ of the later period, and David Matthews ended his own review of Soden’s book by remarking: ‘I am in a majority in thinking that Tippett was at his most inspired in the music of his middle years – from the First String Quartet to King Priam – and that afterwards there was a gradual falling off. Many of the late works seem to me slapdash, as if he no longer cared much about his notes.’

King Priam, which Soden describes as taking place ‘on the margins of the Iliad’, is set against the backdrop of the Trojan War. The lush harmonies and citrus colours of The Midsummer Marriage wouldn’t have served this bleak and disturbing piece. In the earlier opera Tippett had painted an accumulation of orchestral detail onto an opulent canvas, but in King Priam, which was premiered in 1962, he did the opposite: any excess detail was rubbed out. He cut away at the narrative of the Iliad to isolate moments of moral dilemma around which he could shape the piece: these momentary glimpses were mirrored in juxtaposed and overlapping fragments of music. The major works that followed in the 1960s – the Second Piano Sonata, the Concerto for Orchestra and The Vision of Saint Augustine – retained the mosaic form of King Priam, while harmony became like putty in Tippett’s hands, morphing into weird and wonderful shapes.

Reading the responses of Tippett’s fellow composers to his late works, I wonder if I am listening to the same music. To expect the restless mind that created The Midsummer Marriage to stop evolving, to stick with a settled approach to composition, is to miss the point. Every note in the Concerto for Orchestra and Fourth Symphony has a function that makes it possible for Tippett to manipulate sound with tremendous freedom. Those works are anything but slapdash or imprecise.

The Concerto for Double String Orchestra, A Child of Our Time and The Midsummer Marriage could, just about, be thought of as connected to the world of Elgar, Vaughan Williams or Delius, but King Priam, The Knot Garden and Tippett’s third opera, The Ice Break (1977), broke that lineage. He was no longer operating within the confines of a recognisable idiom, or continually refining a technique or method that he knew ‘worked’. Instead, each new piece seemed improvised from the ground up. The Fourth Symphony, which followed The Ice Break, is a good example: its structure, a single digressive movement which explores its material from multiple angles, gives the piece room to grow rather than letting pre-existing rules dictate the form a symphony must take. But Tippett’s freewheeling creative spirit had started to rub the British classical music establishment up the wrong way. He was going rogue at a time when much British music sounded stiff, rule-bound and timid. No wonder there was an effort to ridicule him.

Soden is bold throughout his book, but most of all when he issues a plea that we stop comparing Tippett and Britten: their visions were in the end so different, he argues, that the exercise is pointless. What’s more, he goes on, Tippett isn’t best understood as an English composer, but as the first British composer convincingly to reconcile strains of European modernism with a view of American music wide enough to embrace Charles Ives, the modernism associated with Elliott Carter, and blues, jazz and rock. Tippett, Soden concludes, should be placed in the European tradition of a visionary like Olivier Messiaen, or the fiercely exploratory German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose landmark opera Die Soldaten collaged slabs of orchestral sound with blasts of jazz and electronics, or the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, whose symphonies posed questions about symphonic form not that different from Tippett’s own.

After Britten’s death in 1976, Tippett became Britain’s senior composer almost by default. Some no doubt baulked at the very idea; Private Eye called him ‘Sir Michael Withit’. He was by that time in his seventies, and relished playing up to his image, dressing younger and younger and getting camper and camper. He became a celebrity, pursued by orchestras and music festivals the world over, and invited onto Terry Wogan’s BBC 1 chat show, where he shared the sofa with George Michael. The first performance of his final opera, New Year, by the Houston Grand Opera in 1989, was a major media event. Tippett’s tendency to sprinkle his librettos with the language of the ghetto, which he’d heard on television, was an easy target for his detractors, who ripped the libretto apart – and there was much amusement in some quarters that the opera, which came across like a hallucinogenic mash-up of West Side Story and Blade Runner, had borrowed the rhythms and inflections of rap. After the London Symphony Orchestra had played the final notes of The Rose Lake, his last major work, at the Barbican in 1995, he was heckled by a small mob of naysayers who had paid good money to sit through his valedictory score in order to make their point. I was there and saw Tippett grin broadly, shrug and wave at the audience, which was cheering him on. He had been patronised by far grander people than this.

The unexpected success of The Midsummer Marriage – and later of The Knot Garden – demonstrated Tippett’s knack of aiming his music towards the young, or young at heart, over the heads of hidebound composers. Soden spent three years writing his book, and clearly developed a strong bond with his subject. (That doesn’t stop him issuing forthright opinions – about the weaknesses he perceives in the Piano Concerto, the Fourth String Quartet and New Year, for example.) At one point he analyses the patterns of Tippett’s speaking voice, and the chapters are interleaved with ‘Diary’ sections in which Soden soaks up the atmosphere of the places where Tippett lived and worked. He strikes gold on one trip when he unearths the autograph manuscript of the First Piano Sonata. His final diary entry describes a visit to Andrew Coster, who was Tippett’s carer as his health deteriorated. Coster shows him Tippett’s bank cards, insurance documents, receipts, Christmas cards and other bits of memorabilia. As a final coup de théâtre he produces a long tube that Soden knows, even before he opens it, must contain Tippett’s ashes. Afterwards he speculates whether ‘any biographer before me has ever held their subject, quite literally, in the palm of an outstretched hand’. It would be going too far to claim that the revival of Tippett’s reputation rests in Soden’s hands, but any such revival must begin with his plea that we listen to Tippett again, with fresh ears. It is time that British music exorcised its suspicion of his work, accepted it whole, took pleasure in its richness – and learned from it.

Send Letters To:

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Letters

Vol. 42 No. 16 · 13 August 2020

Philip Clark refers to Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending as a ‘string piece’ (LRB, 16 July). In fact it is scored for solo violin, two flutes, one oboe, two bassoons, two horns and triangle as well as strings.

Alan Hollinghurst
London NW3

Delighted to read that Michael Tippett’s piano teacher was a Mrs Tinkler. At last, a rival in the nominative determinism stakes to Duke Ellington’s piano teacher, Mrs Clinkscales.

Alex Webb
Harrow

Philip Clark refers in passing to Tippett’s opera The Ice Break (1976). In 2015 Birmingham Opera Company put it on as a promenade performance, with professional soloists and amateur chorus, actors and dancers. As one of the chorus, I can attest to the difficulty of the music and the intellectual effort it took to master it even partly. We took some comfort from the fact that any errors we made would probably go unnoticed.

Rosi Edwards
Birmingham

Vol. 42 No. 15 · 30 July 2020

Philip Clark refers to Stravinsky’s ‘string orchestra piece Dumbarton Oaks’ (LRB, 16 July). In fact it is scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon and two horns as well as ten string players.

Chris Sansom
London E5

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