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Michael Tippett - A composer 'of our times'

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 17 March 2005

Michael Tippett's musical output was prodigious, bold, questioning and passionate but not to everyone's taste. Depending on one's view, Tippett's music is as often enlightening and uplifting as it is dense and seemingly directionless. It is always unashamedly intellectual and reflects the personal bravery and unquenchable curiosity of this 20th century English cultural giant who died in 1998, 3 days after his 93rd birthday.

Tippett was not a genius but he had a talent for creating music that was attuned to the temper of the times although he didn't always hit the mark. His oratorio, A Child of our Times, written at the start of World War II is brilliantly moving, but his opera, The Knot Garden, written in the swinging '60s and dealing with the politics of sexual identity, is forced and the characters stereotyped.

Despite such flaws, what marks Tippett as a composer whose music has a fair chance of standing the test of time are his vision and his weaving of the mystic and visionary, poetic and dramatic genres into musical settings. There is an elasticity of imagination in Tippett's composition that stems in part, from his early years which were marked by unconventionality, political radicalism and a peripatetic lifestyle.


Tippett was born in London on January 2, 1905, and he and his older brother, Peter, who became a prominent naval historian, were the products of parents who, although relatively materially comfortable, were politically liberal. The father Henry, a lawyer, was a rationalist and a Manchester liberal and his wife, Isabel Kemp, was a novelist, Labour Party member and a suffragette.

World War I was a difficult time for Tippett he was only nine when it began in 1914. His parents' financial situation deteriorated and he moved with them through France, Italy and Corsica, living in shabby hotel suites.

The young Tippett's sensual and sensitive nature was evident early on. As a teenager he attended the public school Fettes near Edinburgh, where he was at once bullied and lost his virginity to another boy. He was more comfortable at Stamford Grammar School in Lincolnshire, where he completed his secondary education, although his quite public atheism was, according to biographer Merrion Bowen, perceived as being so destabilising for the school that Tippett, at the headmaster's request, was billeted in the local village.

Unlike Britten who was marked out as a child prodigy, Tippett appears to have come to music relatively late for someone who excelled at the art. In 1923 Tippett entered the Royal College of Music where he found a fertile creative environment. Luminaries, including the conductors Henry Wood and a young Adrian Boult, and composer Vaughan-Williams, were all available to students. Boult in particular, nurtured Tippett, allowing him to assist with Friday rehearsals of the college's orchestra for four years.

By now Tippett's interests were catholic: politics, literature and 16th and 17th century English music were stimulating his natural intellectual curiosity. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he appears to have accepted his homosexuality in a matter of fact way.

The 23-year-old Tippett who graduated from the Royal College in 1928 had in him earnestness and a desire to use his musical talents for the advancement of society. The Depression years gave him an opportunity linked to the great and intense love he had found with the painter Wilfred Franks. Franks, who thrived on hiking through Italy, Germany and the north of England, exposed Tippett to child poverty, an experience that made its creative mark in the monumental A Child of our Time.


The political radicalism that his parents had imparted engendered an intense period of organising, producing and conducting. Tippett conducted choirs for the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society Choir and when they toured London's Dickensian East End, Tippett would arrange for meals to be served for choir members and the audience.

Tippett, in common with many of the intellectual and cultural class in Britain at the time, was attracted to Marxism (Trotskyism was more appealing to him than Stalinism) and he flirted with the British Communist Party, but was not a dedicated party man. It was specific causes and a genuine commitment to social justice ideals and actions that seemed to drive Tippett's political engagements rather than a slavish adherence to doctrine. He could not, for instance, stomach the idea of revolution by violent means.

In the political, romantic and social awakening that the 1930s brought, Tippett found expression in music of genuine substance. In addition to A Child of our Time, the String Quartet in A and his Concerto for Double String Orchestra emanate from this period. The Concerto for Double String Orchestra is an exemplar of Tippett's experimentation with rhythmic changes and in this sense it echoes prominent the modernist composers Igor Stravinsky and Leos Janacek.

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This is an edited version of an article first published in the Australian Financial Review on March 4, 2005.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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