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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Michael Tippett - A composer to Forget

By Norman Lebrecht / December 22, 2004


Most New Years allow a decent interval for recovery before triggering the ritual orgy of anniversary festivities which, in a clueless world, passes for clever musical programming. Beware, then, of 2005 which cruelly from its very second day marks the centenary of the composer Michael Tippett with a commemorative week on Radio 3, a filmed portrait on BBC4 and performances of his music in all four corners of the kingdom – but, nota bene, nowhere beyond, except Chicago and Boston where two British Davises, Andrew and Colin, will impose his creations on bemused (and minuscule) audiences.

Tippett is a British taste, and none the better for that. With the exception of his oratorio A Child of Our Time, which is a wonderful singalong in any tongue, none of his 80-odd (some very odd) works have travelled well, despite the best efforts of his German publisher, Schott, and many British supporters. I once looked around during an Andrew Davis performance of a Tippett symphony in Philadelphia and counted fewer than 200 paying heads. As I looked around, so were many others – so feeble was the music's grip on our attention.

Tippett, born into Home Counties comfort on 2 January 1905, was an inglorious exemplar of English amateurism. After studies at the Royal College of Music he drifted into vagrancy in the 1930s, espousing Trotskyism, living in a hovel and running musical teach-ins for farm workers. His first piano sonata, string quartet and chamber ensemble pieces are Beethovenian in form and content. A Child of Our Time is a Handel-like response to political events, a protest at the climate of inhumanity originally sparked by the November 1938 murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish refugee and Hitler's Kristallnacht retaliation.

When war broke out, Tippett refused to bear arms. Registered as a conscientious objector he could not be bothered to undertake fire watching duties and was jailed for three months. Vaughan Williams appealed for his release, calling him 'a national asset' and Britten came with Peter Pears to play at Wormwood Scrubs. A Child, premieredin March 1944, was acclaimed as a masterpiece of secular humanism. Powerful as the music is, singers often find hard to stifle a giggle at banalities in Tippett's text: 'He shoots the official – but he shoots only his dark brother – and see: he is dead.'

The press had him down as an intellectual and cultured society bracketed Tippett with Britten. Both composers were pacifist, leftist, gay and on unusually good terms with one another; their differences, however, were greater than any superficial affinities.

Britten's music was tightly disciplined, never a note out of place, its topics timeless yet always contemporary, its resonance global. Tippett's scores sprawled all over the page, his themes were vague and parochial, his style archaic or contrived. Highly trained German musicians, exiled in Britain, were aghast at the sloppiness of his structure, likening him to a poet who cannot make lines balance or scan. Even sworn admirers, like the composer Michael Berkeley who presents BBC4's tribute, admit that his music 'does not trip off the page'. On the contrary, it trips over itself. When Adrian Boult premiered Tippett's second symphony on live radio, the performance broke down in confusion after a couple of minutes.

Tippett dismissed criticism as prejudice or ignorance, a failure to grasp the uniqueness of his idiom. When Covent Garden commissioned an opera, he took T S Eliot's brush-off as serious advice and decided to write his own librettos. A Midsummer Marriage (back in a new production at the ROH next October) is consequently lumbered with an irresolute plot and impossibly naïve dialogue. King Priam, his next, had a Greek myth to keep it on the rails, but The Knot Garden is a rambling indulgence in late-Sixties psychobabble, unrelieved by so much as one credible character. Peter Hall, the director, perhaps in desperation, ordered one of the singers to drop her top – historically, the first such exposure on the Royal Opera stage.

Discovering America's sexual freedoms, Tippett pranced about in hippie sandals and injected transatlantic rhythms into later works, without winning many new friends. The tedium of his fourth opera, The Ice Break, was briefly relieved by the use of laser beams, which Tippett had copied from Stockhausen's Licht. His final opera, New Year, commissioned by Houston and Glyndebourne in 1989, achieved the lowestratings ever measured on BBC2 and gave vital ammunition to those who sought, more or less successfully, to ban modern opera from British television.

Yet – and here's the paradox – the woollier Tippett's music grew, the more powerful were his advocates. There is not a musical administrator in the land who will fail to pay in the coming year fervent tribute to our great centennial Briton. Scottish Opera, on its last legs for want of public support, will (unless the bailiffs arrive first) stage the baffling Knot Garden. The LSO, almost bankrupted by a Tippett cycle in 1982, will attempt another. Schott are publishing – for whom? – an exhaustive new edition of King Priam.

Beyond critical considerations, Tippett was an unfailingly gentle man who could charm anyone (myself included) over a cup of tea and did much by brave and benign example to diffuse public fears over homosexual rights. He gave unsparingly of his time to up-and-coming young musicians who are now in positions of authority where they can repay the debt with fond interest.

There is something admirable about their stubborn advocacy of a genuine English eccentric, an affirmation that not all in cultural life has to be ruled by box-office, or logic. That said, I cannot begin to assess the damage to British music that will ensue from the coming year's purblind promotion of a composer who failed so insistently to observe the rules of his craft.

Set beside any of his contemporaries, radical or conservative, British, American or European, Tippett fails the driving test of coherence. That, devotees argue, is his essential charm. But in the eyes of the world their yearlong celebration will revert our music to pre-Britten standards of anything goes. American critics often accuse us of abusing state subsidy to exaggerate the merits of British composers. Here is a classic instance of local patriotism and personal affection running riot at public expense. Since his death in January 1998, Tippett has scarcely been played at all. Once the next year is over, oblivion will mercifully resume.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001