TIPPETT: A Child of Our Time
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Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998)
A Child of Our Time
Michael Tippett was one of the most gifted and mostinspiring figures in twentieth-century British musicallife. He was born on 2nd January 1905 in London, butgrew up in a village in the East Anglian county ofSuffolk and at a succession of boarding schools.
Because his parents lived most of the time on theContinent, he travelled extensively in Europe, acquiringfacility in languages and an unusually internationaloutlook. Childhood piano lessons and concert-goingprompted the ambition of becoming a composer, whichwas furthered by study at the Royal College of Music inLondon between 1923 and 1928, and later by privatelessons with R.O. Morris. During the 1930s Tippettlived in the Surrey countryside south of London, earninga frugal living from teaching, and becoming involved inleft-wing politics. He withheld most of his compositionsof that period: his earliest published works are his FirstString Quartet, completed in 1935 (and in fact rewritteneight years later), and the first of his four Piano Sonatas,composed in 1936-38. Early in the Second World War,Tippett was appointed Director of Music at MorleyCollege, an adult education institute in south London; hewas to hold the post until 1951, conducting the MorleyChoir in numerous concerts of early and new music. Alifelong pacifist, he was imprisoned for three months in1943 as a conscientious objector, but his stock as acomposer rose gradually, through performances andbroadcasts of works including his Concerto for DoubleString Orchestra and A Child of Our Time. Theseestablished his individual compositional voice, withtraditional forms modelled on those of Beethoven filledout in contrapuntal textures - line against line asopposed to chord after chord - and melodies animatedby lithe syncopated or irregular rhythms, suggestedequally by Stravinsky, sixteenth-century madrigals andjazz.
After the War Tippett became well known not onlyas a conductor but also as a broadcaster on musical andcultural topics; meanwhile, he was working for severalyears on the first of his five operas, The MidsummerMarriage, which eventually reached the stage in 1955.
This and two satellite works of the 1950s, the PianoConcerto and the Second Symphony, marked a peak ofrich, exuberant invention in his music. In the early1960s, he adopted more austere textures, complementedby mosaic-like construction, in such works as the operaKing Priam, the Concerto for Orchestra and the shortoratorio The Vision of St Augustine. Despite turningsixty in 1965, and being knighted the following year,Tippett remained apart from the Establishment,retaining his iconoclastic youthfulness of manner, anddelighting in collaborations with young players andperformances to young audiences. He became especiallypopular in the United States: his visits there brought anew swathe of influences, from both American classicalmusic and popular culture, into such works of the 1970sas the operas The Knot Garden and The Ice Break andthe Third Symphony; and American commissions or cocommissionsin the 1970s and 1980s resulted in hisFourth and last Symphony, his evening-long choral workThe Mask of Time, and his last opera New Year.
Something of Tippett's early lyricism returned in hislater works, which also include a Triple Concerto, thelast of his five String Quartets, and his farewell tocomposition, The Rose Lake for orchestra. In hisautobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues, Tippettdeclared with characteristic optimism 'My real hope isto see in the new millennium'; but he died in 1998, sixdays after his 93rd birthday.
Tippett wrote his oratorio A Child of Our Timebetween 1939 and 1941; its first performance, at theRoyal Adelphi Theatre in London in March 1944, wasone of the outstanding artistic events in the capitalduring the War. As later with all his operas, he wrote hisown text; at one stage, he asked the great poet T.S. Eliotto write it, but on seeing his draft outline Eliot advisedTippett to complete it himself, as anything he mightwrite would be so overtly poetic as to get in the way ofthe music. The work was inspired by an incident whichtook place in Paris in November 1938: a seventeen-yearoldPolish Jew, a refugee whose family had beenarrested by the Gestapo and stranded with thousands ofothers at the Polish frontier, and who was himself beingsheltered illegally in France by his uncle and aunt, shotand killed a diplomat at the German Legation. He wastried and imprisoned by the French authorities; and theNazis, by way of reprisal for the killing, launched one oftheir most savage pogroms in Germany and Austria, thenotorious 'Kristallnacht'. Tippett's libretto does notsimply narrate these events, but views them at oneremove, from the standpoint of a non-believer, aconvinced pacifist, and an admirer of the writings of thepsychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. Its central theme is theneed for each individual to come to terms with his or herown evil side, rather than project it on to an enemy -because the two sides of the personality arecomplementary, and both necessary, like winter andspring, darkness and light. This is stated most clearly inthe unexpectedly hopeful passage in Part Three in whichthe tenor soloist and then the chorus sing: 'I would knowmy shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole.'The music of A Child of Our Time similarlyreconciles and integrates apparent opposites. The overallform of the work, the composer himself said, recalls thetripartite arrangement of Handel's Messiah, in which thefirst part consists of 'great but general prophecies', thesecond of narrative, and the third of 'commentary andjudgment'. Within this framework, there are morespecific reminiscences of Handel's oratorios and ofBach's Passion settings, in such things as the dual r??lesof the soloists as characters in the drama andcommentators, the choral 'crowd scenes', among themthe double chorus of persecutors and persecuted in PartTwo, the frequent use of fugal texture, the constantlyvarying instrumental colours of successive numbers orsections, and most obviously the familiar first-inversionchords which herald the solo bass's passages ofnarrative recitative. But the musical language of thework is by no means pastiche: it is Tippett's own,recognisably English, especially in its madrigal-likeadherence to the natural stresses of the words against theunderlying pulse, and coloured by echoes of jazz andpopular music such as the tango rhythm of the tenor's 'Ihave no money for my bread'. These go halfway to meetone of the most striking features of the work, the Negrospirituals which are introduced from time to time tocomment on the actions and emotions of the drama, inthe same way as the Lutheran chorales in Bach'sPassions. The spirituals are included as the songs of thevictims of oppression in another generation and onanother continent, and through their very familiaritythey emphasize the relevance to us of the events Tippettdescribes and comments on: more than sixty years later,the anguished boy is still 'a child of our time'.Anthony Burton