A twinkly-eyed genius: why I love composer Michael Tippett

You have to love Michael Tippett’s music if you are going to conduct it. His music is exasperating to bring to performance – it is impractically written, often on the edge of possibility, and frustrating for musicians to realise. The first performance of his Second Symphony fell apart, and, later, under the direction of the composer, a recording session of the same piece had Tippett on the podium, utterly lost, swishing pages back and forwards, giggling.

I have a slight fetish for those composers for whom the narrow bandwidth of five neat lines on paper seems hopelessly inadequate – Berlioz, Janáček and Lutosławski (try his third and fourth symphonies) are all in this group, as is Tippett. Their fantasy and lack of boundaries can make rehearsals feel career-shortening, but make performances transcendental. When you listen to their music you are in awe at how it could ever be reduced to paper. There is something of the essence of Tippett’s sound world here. He made music that is otherworldly, luminous and elemental, which strikes right from his inspiration to a listener’s heart.

In 1943, Tippett was imprisoned for three months for being a conscientious objector. Having registered his objection to the war, he refused to accept a tribunal’s decision that he do supportive civilian work. His sentence was despite some support from government and much support from the musical establishment (including Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten’s partner). It says much about Tippett’s spirit that two great pieces, The Midsummer Marriage and A Child of Our Time, were conceived in this terror-filled time. Both are statements of hope and reconciliation. Tippett found recognition with A Child of Our Time (as well as criticism from major music figures, who found the piece formless and musical language incoherent). The piece’s blend of anger and insecurity is framed by soothing spirituals aimed to repair a fractured society. It’s still Tippett’s best-known piece and it speaks as powerfully today as it did in the 1940s.

The Midsummer Marriage was first performed in 1955, but Tippett worked on it from 1940. It’s a brighter, more optimistic work, and it celebrates individuality, different ideals and, finally, a sense of community and regeneration of society.

The postwar years were frantically verdant for great English-language operas. There was clearly a need to explore ideas of society, of relationships, of life itself in our own language and to create a lyrical tradition of our own. Between the end of the war and 1955, Igor Stravinsky wrote The Rake’s Progress, William Walton wrote Troilus and Cressida, and Britten wrote The Rape of Lucretius, Albert Herring, Gloriana and the piece that overshadowed all others, the great Peter Grimes.

The Midsummer Marriage had a difficult genesis. Rehearsals were fraught (enervated singers even expressed frustration in the press) and one wonders if the Royal Opera House had the resources to put on such a huge work in the same year as Walton’s opera (but what a brilliant endorsement of British art to even try). Tippett had tried to find a route through the piece with various literary figures (including TS Eliot) but ended up writing the text himself.

In an era before subtitles, the critics, including the all-powerful Ernest Newman, were sent a copy of the libretto in advance; the cocktail of half-painted Jungian philosophy, classical allusion and natty 50s colloquialisms left them completely baffled. But to try to explore the work dry like that was to miss the point of Tippett’s artistry. He wasn’t interested in a linear narrative: he paints sentiment, feeling and spirituality behind, under and on top of the words.

Where did Tippett get his musical language from, his sense of timelessness, rooted in the distant past and reflecting the present, all wrapped in a world that seems fresh today? Morley College, where Tippett was music director from 1940, was a laboratory for the rebirth of British music. The rediscovery of Purcell’s music was central, but also medieval and early choral music (he conducted a performance of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium) and organised the first British performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers, a piece blazing with colour and virtuosity. We explore the past to find out more about ourselves now. In The Midsummer Marriage you hear this engagement with the past, whether from the Purcellian clarity of the otherworldly old-guard, “the ancients”, or the arching lines of Mark’s expression of love at the beginning of the piece, winging Monteverdi-like phrases, trying to touch the skies.

There are two images I have of Tippett. The first comes from meeting him when I was 13. He was a flamboyantly dressed man with a lovely twinkle in his eye, and kind. The second is an image of him and Britten at a reception. The love between the two is evident. Britten gave Tippett unflinching support, pushing commissions his way, helping his court case and underwriting the premiere of A Child of Our Time. But he was acutely aware that Tippett had a gift, a vision that he himself didn’t.

Britten’s music is accessible (a vague word). It has a clarity on the page and in performance, and his choice of text is always impeccable. Dare I admit there are times when it leaves me cold, painting emotion rather than delving into it? Tippett wrote, rather disloyally, about Britten’s word-setting: “The music seems always to be ‘setting a play to music’ not to be the principal vehicle of the comic imagination.”

This really chimes with me. I find some of Britten’s settings vampiric, drawing energy from the words, not adding musical depth. (I find his War Requiem and Billy Budd both uncomfortable because of this.)

In that picture I imagine Tippett whispering strange thoughts, seer-like, into Britten’s ear, and Britten thinking: “Where does he get this stuff from?”

What do we need to experience through opera? For me, the music has to express the hinterland of the text, the possibilities of meaning, what is left unsaid or can’t be expressed through text; this is what A Midsummer Marriage does, and pieces such as this represent the greatest artistic fusion we know.

So, I ask you to leave your librettos and guides to Jung at home, and experience Tippett’s unique magical world – the shimmer of light in the woodwinds above the landscape at the beginning of Act 2, promising us the joy of a midsummer’s day, Jenifer laughingly dancing with a trumpet or the searing, cataclysmic brass crescendos punctuating Sosostris’s vision in Act 3. Tippett’s music affects me in a way no other does. I well up with the childlike optimism, and almost laugh out loud at the joyousness. I would love everyone to hear A Midsummer Marriage and share the unique effect Tippett’s music can have.

The opera’s final lines, sung by all, is a quote from Yeats: “All things fall and are built again, and those that build them are gay.” As we come out of these dreadful 18 months, what better time to celebrate the regeneration of art and the genius of this twinkly-eyed master?

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