Sir Michael Tippett

1905 - 1998

Michael Tippett
© NICKY JOHNSTON

Sir Michael Tippett was born in London on 2 January 1905 and led a creative life that spanned almost a century.

It was typical that he should set up a Foundation to use the legacy of his works to help others. Throughout his life he looked outwards at the condition of humanity and many of his works reflect his wish for justice and understanding together with compassion.

He became interested in composing music in his teens and from 1923 spent four years as a student at the Royal College of Music. In 1929 he moved out of London in order to earn a living and make more time for writing music. He took a small cottage near Oxted and got a job teaching French at Hazelwood School nearby. His time in Oxted provided the opportunity to direct the local Choir and conduct opera at the Barn Theatre; he taught himself German, and also returned to the RCM part-time for further counterpoint studies.

In the 1930s Tippett became involved in initiatives to help unemployed people. As tutor at Morley College, Lambeth, he conducted the South London Orchestra whose concert receipts were shared between the players, many of whom had been cinema musicians made redundant by the 'talkies'. The Orchestra gave the first performance of his Concerto for Double String Orchestra at the College in 1940.

During these years Tippett was alarmed at the growing threat of war in Europe and took an active interest in the politics of the Left. He believed strongly in pacifism, and after war was declared he registered as a conscientious objector and refused to serve the war effort. As a result he was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for three months.

At the same time he was horrified at the oppression and injustices taking place in Europe. In 1939 he began work on his first major work A Child of Our Time. This was based on a real incident in which a boy victim of injustice responded with violence, an action which became a flashpoint for even greater violence. Tippett wanted to express universal feelings about such events and his choice of Negro Spirituals to do this achieved dramatic effect. The feelings evoked continue to resonate today in performances around the world.

Tippett was now a public figure in music, and had become Director of Music at Morley College. In the eleven years of his directorship, many distinguished musicians became involved in the College, and Morley concerts featured the rediscovery of music by Purcell and Monteverdi alongside new music by Britten, Stravinsky and Hindemith.

After leaving Morley College in 1951, Tippett moved to Sussex; from this time on he was able to support himself almost entirely through composition. His first opera The Midsummer Marriage was premiered at the Royal Opera House in 1955 in a production with scenery and costumes by sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and choreography by John Cranko. The music of the celebrated Ritual Dances from the opera defines the sound of Tippett's musical language of this period, with multiplicity of lines, vitality of rhythm and references to the natural world. This sound was to change around the time of his second opera King Priam, premiered in 1962 in the Coventry Cathedral Festival. Tippett's vitality of rhythm continued, but was now heard in music sparer in texture, with a harder percussive edge, set to stark effect against the background of the Trojan War.

Michael Tippett
© ALAN WOOLGAR

The different sound worlds of the operas were reflected in the development of his instrumental works, in which musical ideas from the operas were cross-referenced and given instrumental focus. In addition to five operas, he also wrote four symphonies, five string quartets, numerous songs and choral settings, four piano sonatas, orchestral works like the Triple Concerto, and works for voices and orchestra such as The Vision of Saint Augustine.

In 1960 he left Sussex and went to live in Wiltshire, first in the village of Corsham, and then in an isolated house perched on Derry Hill above the town of Calne. This was his home until failing health in late life brought him back to London.

Tippett said that for him music was inseparable from other creative and intellectual pursuits. He was an avid reader and thinker, and expressed his point of view about a composer's role, and the relevance and relationship of music to other arts in numerous articles and BBC broadcasts. He was interested in other composers, writers and artists and in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and world affairs. He loved bright colours, casual clothes, television and travel, peace and solitude for work, with company and conversation for refreshment.

He first visited the United States in 1965 and was enthusiastic about the sense of inquiry and energy that he met. His music won advocates and audiences there, and Tippett in turn introduced elements of American slang and music into his own work, for example in The Knot Garden, first performed in 1970. The last of his five operas was New Year co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the BBC and first performed in 1989.

His very last major composition was The Rose Lake, premiered as part of his ninetieth birthday celebrations at the Barbican in 1995 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.

Michael Tippett, who by then had become Sir Michael Tippett, C.H., O.M., died on 8 January 1998, shortly after his 93rd birthday.


More about Tippett:

Forthcoming performances and sound clips on the Tippett pages of the Schott Music website www.schott-music.com


Music - sheet music and scores

All Tippett's music is published by Schott Music and is available through www.schott-music.com
The Schott Music shop in the UK is at 48 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7BB. Tel +44 (0) 20 7534 0700. londonshop@schott-music.com


Recent recordings of Tippett music

Recent books about Tippett



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