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 ...’

Now, a nasty referee might frown at White’s observation that Tippett doesn’t ‘exploit’ serialism, versus Matthews’ that he tentatively ‘explores’ it. But a wise referee’s rejoinder could be that it is indeed possible to explore without exploiting, to examine a possibility without exhausting it. In any case, the concept of serial technique has remained so ill-defined, and so inconsistently applied, that you can’t blame observers for making a terminological mess of the musical mess with which they tend to find themselves confronted. What you can blame them for, however, is their confusing two of the very few clear concepts which the verbalisation of dodecaphony has thrown up – the ‘12-note theme’ (White) and the ‘12-note row’ (Matthews): if you want to know, Tippett’s opening succession of 12 different notes is neither.

A 12-note theme (surprise!) is a theme consisting of 12 different notes, different pitches. It may or may not be a 12-note row at the same time: the theme of Schoenberg’s classical Orchestral Variations is. But Tippett’s 12 notes are not a theme, anyway: the 12th, far from being the last note of a thematic entity, is a first, upbeating note. Again, a 12-note row is a set of 12 different notes of whose constant and exclusive use Schoenberg’s 12-note technique consists – ‘the Method’, as he calls it in his only essay on the subject, ‘of Composing with 12 Tones Which are Related Only with One Another’ (pardon his American).

And while Tippett does make some shy and indeed immediate attempts at letting his succession of 12 notes rotate (in its original shape, not in any transposition or mirror form), the method on which the row’s existence would depend is not applied, as indeed both White and Matthews give one to understand so what does the term ‘row’ (let alone ‘theme’) mean in such a context? ‘Let there be unity’ (through the note-row), Schoenberg says at the end of the selfsame essay. ‘Let there be clarity’ (about the note-row), I say at the end of these two books. What clearly happens at the beginning of The Knot Garden is that against one’s expectations, a series of 12 different notes turns out to be neither a theme nor a row: for all we know, this might be a very sophisticated creative idea – meaningfully to contradict what Tippett expects to be the sophisticated listener’s expectations, which are thus shown up by the further, undodecaphonic course of events, shown to be banal neo-conventional. I wouldn’t put it past him

But it would be a vague idea, nevertheless vague in its effect, which would depend on the listener’s being in on Tippett’s private world, with its time-honoured, deep ambivalence towards Schoenberg in general and dodecaphony in particular – an ambivalence that stretches back at least as far as the early Fifties. White recounts that at that time, commissions apart, Tippett ‘was also engaged to give a number of broadcast talks, generally for the Third Programme. A particularly important series of three formed part of a prolonged obituary tribute to Arnold Schoenberg in 1952.’ Matthews contents himself with reporting that Tippett ‘had begun to give broadcast talks for the BBC after the war and found that they provided a useful small secondary income’. But the fact that it all happened before he came in doesn’t prevent Matthews in his apotheosis of muddle-headedness on his last pages, from preserving Tippett’s critical drivel of 1952 for posterity: it has now turned into Matthews’ own view – unconscious maybe, of its origins.

What happened at the time was that Tippett, without the remotest knowledge of or insight into, Schoenberg’s music, delivered himself of his free associations with it, achieving results of mere autobiographical significance – such as the most professional musiccritic could pride himself on. What was worse Tippett didn’t only talk, but (as neither White nor Matthews seems to know) presided over the BBC’s entire, extended Schoenberg series as its ‘General Editor’. I dealt with the event in both the Music Review (‘The BBC’s Victory over Schoenberg’) and Music Survey (‘A Bed-side Editorial for the BBC’), proving the series’ ‘factual ignorance and musical idiocy’ and pointing out that ‘less than Tippett’s knowledge about Schoenberg even the BBC would find it difficult to procure’. When, seven years later, the BBC appointed me to a senior position, some of my new colleague couldn’t believe their senses, and to begin with, one of them wouldn’t even talk to me.

It’s a stale story, you might think, and who cares now, anyway, especially in a review of books on Tippett’s own music. Indeed, that’s what I thought before I saw Mr Matthews concluding pages, which bring a profoundly musical, empathetic and concretely knowledgeable little volume to a gas-filled close: far from stale, Tippett’s old Schoenberg story is now stop-press news. No, Matthews doesn’t plagiarise: he simply identifies, instinctively and wholly, with the ‘master’; the words ‘masterpiece’, ‘master’, ‘mastery’, incidentally, recur throughout the book, though demonstrable mastery is the one attribute which, demonstrably, this weighty composed does not possess. As if nothing had happened in the intervening decades, as if Schoenberg’s music were as incomprehensible now as it was then (to Tippett, anyway), we once again hear all about dodecaphony’s limited expressive range – as if these limitations had not, meanwhile, been shown to lie in the ear of the 12-tone-deaf.

There is no conceivable objection to such deafness, so long as one doesn’t make a critical virtue of it. But then, with utterly disarming naivety, without seeing the slightes need to ask himself whether he, as distinct from the rest of the world, might be wrong Mr Matthews considers that musical history by following Schoenberg, has gone wrong altogether. It should have followed Tippett. Cheer up, though, it’s not too late: ‘If composers still want to express such emotions in their music [i.e. those which Mr Matthews doesn’t hear in Schoenberg’s – to wit, joy, gaiety, exuberance], they might profitably consider how Tippett’s language in its development from orthodox tonality to pantonality has always been a potent vehicle for the widest range of expression.’

Hurray, the crisis of contemporary music is all over: people had simply forgotten about Tippett. Charmingly again, Mr Matthews seems blissfully unaware that the concept of ‘pantonality’ is Schoenberg’s own, a neologism invented as a counter-blow against so-miscalled ‘atonality’: the term stemmed from a misapprehension in which Mr Matthews is still stuck, ‘limited’ 12-tone range and all. But Tippett himself loved the idea of ‘pantonality’ in 1952: it is eminently capable of the widest, vaguest, woolliest, and vastly varying interpretations. Seriously, though: none of us is entitled to move within writing distance of our perdurable crisis without realising that half the crisis is us, in our capacity as listeners, and only half of it them, the composers.

Nowhere else does Mr Matthews blunder to that extent. There is, of course, the occasional critical assertion without much behind it: ‘American popular music is something few composers this century have been able totally to ignore’; almost the entire Second Viennese School and, beyond it, almost the entire Central European symphonic tradition wholly ignored it. ‘Every piece of music is strictly defined by its duration in time.’ Is that why most composers’ printed durations are at violent variance with the durations of their own performances? Tempo is a function of structure – and hence, in actual performance, a function of phrasing, if any: where there’s no phrasing, there’s no tempo, but only rate of progress. ‘The English creative imagination is deeply rooted in the countryside.’ Alan Rawsthorne’s, for instance, or Benjamin Frankel’s, or Robert Simpson’s? ‘Interestingly, the two dominating English composers of our time were brought up within forty miles of each other in the same county, though Britten’s seaside town of Lowestoft was a quite different environment from Tippett’s country village.’ In that case, what’s interesting about the coincidence?

But as David Matthews gets down to the musical nitty-gritty, to specific compositorial observations without too much theorising around them, much is forgotten and all forgiven: helped by 24 well-selected and, for once, well-checked music examples, he proves an indispensable help towards the understanding of music sufficiently striking to arrest attention, but not always sufficiently well defined to keep attention under arrest. One musician reader, at any rate, will always be grateful for being allowed to share perceptions which, in their turn, have sprung from a spontaneous act of sharing that he himself could not, unaided, have taken part in. Nor need you be a musician reader: unnecessary technical language is avoided, simplicity sought, at any rate on the concretely musical level.

Eric Walter White for his part, likewise, is at his imposing best when he gets down to palpable business, which is most of the way. And while he works without music examples (though, like Matthews, with photographic illustrations), he has at his disposal a great number of examples of a different kind – examples of Tippett’s conceptual thought: Tippett regularly consulted White, a close friend, during the creation of the first three operas, and White quotes extensively from their correspondence, so that on top of his own, meticulous account of the operas, we are provided with a whole series of Tippett letters centrally relevant to the subject of the book. My own top relevancy occurs in a letter of 18 March 1950: ‘Perhaps the gulf in England between music (or at any rate the music critics) & the general world of ideas, art & literature etc is too wide to be bridged, & that [sic] any attempt would drop into the gulf and smash.’ The relevancy, to be sure, is to what I regard as the most intriguing question about Tippett’s work – to whose essence neither Matthews nor White seems anxious to get: how is it that Tippett is so un-English, so German, that (uniquely outside the German-writing countries) all his librettos are his own? White at least touches upon the problem, but unfortunately does not, in the German ‘general world of ideas’ (typical Tippett phrase, this) and its marriage to music, think beyond Wagner: he doesn’t consider the other auto-librettists among the German masters, such as Pfitzner, Hindemith, and Schoenberg – not to speak of the sentence which Beethoven himself invented to introduce Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ in the finale of his Ninth.

Instead, Eric Walter White in his turn finishes his book on the vaguest possible note: ‘but it is now clear that Tippett’s operatic contribution is a unique one ...’ Whose isn’t? At the same time, among English composers of substance, Tippett is certainly the only one who wrote his own texts. His identification with the German spiritual world is in need of analysis. He always felt drawn to German thought, notwithstanding his Englishness as stressed by David Matthews – and the vaguer such German thought was, the better: Jung was an ideal choice, whereas Freud’s (or Schoenberg’s) verbal clarity and exactitude was antipathetic. As a matter of fact, as verbal thinkers, the Germans aren’t half as vague as the English think they are. But – and this is the maddening problem of his genius – Tippett is.