Sunday, December 29, 2002


Composers’ websites vary enormously. One of the best, by virtue of its organisation, accessibility and comprehensiveness, is that of the late Sir Michael Tippett, after Benjamin Britten perhaps the greatest British classical composer of the twentieth century. Here is a personal introduction to his work and a brief survey of the best web resources for exploring his music, ideas and continuing impact today.


Appreciating Tippett

I first fell under the spell of Tippett's music through his early popular works – 'Fantasia on a Theme by Corelli', the 'Concerto for Double String Orchestra' – and then (more intensely) through the 1953 opera 'A Midsummer Marriage'. With hindsight this highly idiosyncratic work acted as a bridge between the multi-layered lyricism of his early pieces and the specific density and angularity of the later orchestral, choral, music theatre and chamber compositions.

After very many listenings the Ritual Dances from 'The Midsummer Marriage' still retain their capacity to surprise and delight, and for me they constitute perhaps the single best introduction to Tippett’s strange-yet-familiar aural universe. The melodic elusiveness, textural variety, subtle colouration and rhythmic energy they embody are certainly persistent features of his writing. But they also convey a sense of the muse and the mystic behind the music.

The sheer humanitarian and political passion of Michael Tippett the man is well summed up in his famous après-religious oratorio, ‘A Child of Our Time’, the one work that has assuredly made its way into popular classical programming. Here the use of African-American spirituals in the role of a Bach-style chorale illustrates Tippett’s concern for both the past and the present. He is, in way not dissimilar to Messiaen, a very singular voice: a true one-off. But his idiomatic approach feeds on thoroughly absorbed musical tradition (from Purcell to Beethoven and beyond) at the very same time as it embraces the new, the global and the vernacular.

Anyone wanting a more extensive insight into the scale and breadth of Tippett's work is recommended to get hold of the good value 4-CD Nimbus boxed set. This is a fine entrée and includes the Ritual Dances, though it might also have benefitted from a further operatic excerpt and one symphonic representation.

Many argue that Colin Davis (LSO, Philips/Decca) remains Tippett's greatest interpreter, and the Hickox/Chandos recordings are undeniably good too. But there is also something special about hearing the composer conduct his own works. That, together with strong performances by the English Philharmonic and the Northern Philharmonic, among others, makes these Nimbus discs invaluable.


The premiere of ‘The Rose Lake’

One of my all-time concert highlights is a Tippett memory too -- the premiere of his last major work, 'The Rose Lake', at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 19 February 1995. Along with the superb subsequent recording (Davis/LSO on BMG), the Radio 3 broadcast of that event still takes my breath away. The concert also featured two other rhapsodic works which are among my favourites, Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

The BBC understandably decided to edit out the sad moment that almost marred this otherwise triumphant performance right at the end -- a boorish and (in the circumstances) callous interruption from a couple of apparent associates of The Hecklers, who yelled 'visions of hell' just as the last note was dying away. This was a twisted reference to the superb 'Visions of Paradise' Tippett festival at the Barbican, to which 'The Rose Lake's premier was the deserved climax.

How ironic that this gratuitous outburst should have been reserved for a work that marked a return to full-blown lyricism as this great composer's final testament: proof, if it were needed, that self-styled 'traditionalists' rarely qualify their knee-jerk protests with careful listening. [See also Clements on Stocken]

In the event Tippett dismissed this calculated insult with a characteristic smile and a wave. 'The Rose Lake', like much of his music, is a work of sheer, earthy transcendence, from the first burst of rototoms through to the searching strings and the finely layered detail that makes us pause and wonder. Indeed, in spite of the intensity of much of his writing, humour and gentleness were very much part of the Tippett’s persona. His last Royal Albert Hall pre-Prom talk was as full of laughter as it was of insight, I recall.

After the immediate praise that accompanies any well-known artist's death there is usually a fallow period. That is how it feels with Michael Tippett at the moment. 'A Child of Our Time' will continue to be part of the standard classical repertoire, of course. And snatches of his work crop up regularly at festivals and in chamber concerts. But surely the time is now ripe for a major retrospective for the British composer who, more than most, prefigured the hopes and fears of a new Millennium?


Tippett on the web

In the meantime, while we wait for a re-celebration, we have Tippett's excellent website and other net resources as pointers to his continuing influence and inspiration. Stephen Kristian is the prime mover in the extensive official site (sitemap here) which helpfully offers material in English, German, French, Spanish and Swedish.

In addition to a full list of compositions, includes transcriptions and arrangements, a chronological discography, opera background and synopses, TV and media material, books and articles by and about Tippett, photos, documents, features on his interests and connections, all the back issues of Schott’s Tippett in Focus periodical, recommended retailers, selected performance listings and the current Newsletter. It is a fantastic effort overall. Perhaps a next step might be to include references and samples of the debates and arguments that have followed Tippett’s composing career to date and will, I am sure, continue to rage as his legacy gains further weight and perspective.

Elsewhere on the web Tippett’s long-time collaborator and partner Meirion Bowen continues to be central to understanding the man and his music. Tore F Steenslid has also created a very good personal site about Tippett which includes an interview with both the composer and Bowen, CD reviews, commentary, links and more.

A sympathetic but more critical overview is provided by C. F. Wright on Musicweb. Wright avers that Tippett’s “contribution to music is, indeed, great. He has revived classical forms, the sonata, the string quartet, the concerto and the symphony." But, he continues, "he was hampered by his dependence on musical models and his crazes which fuelled and intensified his intellectualism which alienates much of the listening public who love his early works and, at best, are polite about his later ones. And yet 'The Rose Lake', his final orchestral work, does have a curious beauty about it.” That well represents the sceptic’s view.

Among the many in-depth treatments of his work (Ian Kemp’s monumental text comes to mind), David Clarke’s book on The Music and Thought of Michael Tippett (CUP) should not be overlooked. The US Library of Congress Citations give a fine overview of what is in and out of print both by, and about, Tippett.

Then there are several good on-line interviews by (among others) F. David Peat, one on behalf of the Stereo Society and another for the Pari Center for New Learning. John Whitmore’s 1999 recollections of rehearsals and performances of the 'Shires Suite' are also fascinating, and of the obituary reviews perhaps the best is the one that appeared in 1998 in the Musical Times.

You can hear Tippett himself in some lengthy discussions on ‘The Midsummer Marriage’, his approach to writing and his conscientious objection to war on the BBC Radio 4 archive. In addition, music samples can be located at the British Classical Music sound clips site (Michael Tippett and the piano).

The Peace Pledge Union provide a different kind of biographical note on Tippett’s life commitment to pacifism, and the Peace Now site includes reference to the memorial he inaugurated in London’s Tavistock Square.

Finally, for ongoing conversation, there is a Fans of Michael Tippett discussion forum to be found at Yahoo. You'll need to sign up to join in.

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