Sir Michael Kemp Tippett was a prolific British composer of the 20th century, a humanitarian and a pacifist. The entire gamut of his work comprises of five operas, 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,” etc. Tippet was imprisoned for three month for being a conscientious objector during the Second World War. He was also one of the first gay composers, who confessed his sexual orientation in public and used his music to explore the issues of sexuality.Though the libretti of his operas, which he often wrote himself, he faced stern criticism. However, that hardly deterred him from expressing his ideas or political thoughts through his works. Throughout his lifetime, he remained an avid learner of music. As a conductor, he recorded many of his own works.
Michael Tippett’s Childhood And Early Life
Sir Michael Kemp Tippett was born on 2 January in the year 1905 in the city of London in an affluent family. His father, Henry William Tippett, was a lawyer and an entrepreneur and his mother, Isabel Clementina Binny Kemp, was a charity worker, a member of the labor party and a suffragette. His inclination towards music was evident from the very childhood. Tippet won a scholarship and went to study at Fettes College, but when his liaison with another boy transpired, his parents moved him to Stamford School in Lincolnshire where he completed the rest of his school education. There he learned piano and harmony from Frances Tinkler. His first experience of modern music was on hearing Ravel's Mother Goose suite at a concert in Leicester conducted by Malcolm Sargent. From that day onwards, he yearned to be a composer. During the First World War, his family was confronted with a financial exigency, which obliged them to lead an unsettled life moving around Europe. Tippet joined his parents in vacations. Due to Tippet’s atheistic and rebellious demeanor, his headmaster asked him to be removed from the school premises and to be lodged somewhere else in the town. During this time, he bought a copy of Stanford’s musical composition and started teaching himself. Tippet then went on to study at the Royal College of Music in the year 1923. He learned his first lessons in composition from Charles Wood. After the death of Wood, Tippet went to learn music from Dr. C.H. Kitson. However, there were certain discords between the teacher and the student regarding the style and had to quit. He also gained some working knowledge of the orchestra and conducting. At the RCM, he spent five years and graduated in 1928, taking five instead of four years as he failed in his first attempt.
Though Tippet confessed his homosexuality at a very young age, yet the fear of being ostracized from normal life haunted him. He enchanted both women and man equally with his looks and charm. Throughout his life, he held close relationships with many women. Evelyn Maude, an amateur cellist, was deeply enamored by Tippet and played a role of an elder sister in his life. When Allison, a musician and musicologist with whom he even contemplated adopting a child once committed suicide at the end of World War II, Tippet was left shattered and aggrieved. However, not until Wilfred Franks, a young painter, entered his life, Tippet felt the pangs of real and passionate love. On his relationship with Frank, Tippett once said, “the deepest, most shattering experience of falling in love,” and “a major factor underlying the discovery of my own individual musical 'voice'.”
Tippet was offered to conduct a concert and operatic society in Oxted, Surrey. Thus, in a quest to find solitude to compose, away from the bustling city of London, he fled to placid rural environment. In 1929, he rented a small cottage on the North Downs, formed a madrigal group, and became a music teacher at a local school. Soon with his father’s aid, he constructed a bungalow for himself at Limpsfield. Tippet then went on to produce a number of stage works, one of which was his own version of the 18th century ballad ‘The Village Opera’.
Tippett's own music started featuring in Oxted programmes and in April 1930, he held a concert, which was devoted solely to his own compositions. To brush up his skills further, he went to study with R. O. Morris, who had already taught Tippett at the RCM and was considered to be specialist of 16th century polyphony.Thistraining turned out to be particularly fruitful for him as he was able to emulate the Bach’s style of writing figures.
Tippett was overwhelmed by injustice and oppression, which was taking place in Europe those days.Driven by a strong feeling of empathy, Tippet started fusing his music with radicalized political actions. He then left the teaching job and opted for the conductorship of a number of amateur choirs. The year 1939 witnessed the commencement of his first magnum opus “A Child of Our Time,” which can be said to be the outcome of his crystallized atheistic ideas, which took shape during the course of several informal rendezvous with the Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot whom he often referred to as his spiritual father. “A Child of Our Time” was based on a real incident in which a boy victim of injustice retorted back with violence, an action which then went on to beget much greater violence. The work was completed in 1941 and was performed in 1944 for the first time. Tippett always strived to express universal feeling about such occurrences and his choice of Negro Spirituals achieved the desired dramatic effect.
Tippett’s radical political stand was further fostered when Francesca Allinson introduced him to the Marxist composer Alan Bush, who was the conductor of the London Labor Choral Union. Tippett conducted the orchestra at the Pageant of Labour at the Crystal Palace on 15–20 October 1934. As Tippett strongly championed the idea of individual freedom and reprobated the existence of any tyrannous authority, he chose Trotsky's internationalism over Stalin's rigidly controlled and centralized state. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, but left in the wake of an overpowering clout of Stalinist ideologies. In the same year, Tippett wrote an agitprop play, ‘War Ramp’, about the role of public credit in the financing of war whose argument though seemed to spur the idea of convulsive revolution was denied by him and later started resorting to the idea of pacifism. Trapped between the Scylla of Nazism and Charybdis of Stalinism, Tippett became one of the thousands to take up the pledge of Rev. Dick Sheppard, which then resulted in a peace pledge union of which Tippett became the president eventually. In 1943, he was sentenced to three months imprisonment for refusing, as a pacifist, to comply with conditions of exemption from active war servicebut his loyalty towards pacifist ideology remained unaffected.
In 1960, he moved away from Sussex and went to live in Wiltshire, first in the village of Corsham, and then on Derry Hill above the town of Calne. In the year 1965, he visited the United States, where his music won advocates and audiences, 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.
Awards And Achievements
In 1966, he was knighted, and awarded the Order of Merit in 1983. He remained very active composing and conducting. His opera, ‘New Year’ premiered in 1989, which didn’t get a warm reception. ‘Byzantium’, a piece for soprano and orchestra, was premièred in 1991. “Those Twentieth Century Blues”, the autobiography of Tippett was published in 1991. His Fifth String Quartet was premièred in 1992. In 1995, Tippett was honored on his 90th birthday with special events in Britain, Canada and the US, including the première of his final work, The Rose Lake. In that year a collection of his essays, “Tippett on Music”, also came out. In 1996, Tippett moved from Wiltshire to London for health concerns.
Death And Legacy
In 1979, Tippett set up The Michael Tippett Musical Foundation, a charitable trust that owed its initial income to the sale of most of his autographed manuscripts to the British Library. In 1997, when he was visiting Stockholm for a retrospective of his concert music, he developed pneumonia and was brought home to England, where he died in early 1998. Composers like Mark-Anthony Turnage, David Matthews, William Mathias and Edward Cowie have admitted the influence of Tippet on their work.
- A Child of Our Time (1944)
- The Knot Garden (1970)
- New Year (1989)
- Little Music for Strings (1946)