THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

07 March 2017

Michael Tippett: In the composer’s own voice

Guest blog by Thomas Schuttenhelm, current Edison Fellow and author of  The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, (Faber) a contributing author for the Tippett Cambridge Companion and monograph, also for Cambridge University Press, on The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process. His book Vision and Revision: Michael Tippett’s Fifth String Quartet will be published by Ashgate-Routledge in 2017.

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Tippett at work (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was an English composer for whom the act of creating music was a constant obsession. His fierce commitment to composition resulted in works that were original in design and devastating in their expression. Each work by Tippett originated as a singular vision and resulted in a singular achievement and the consistency of his creative process allowed him to fashion artifacts of shocking originality. His oeuvre is comprised of works that are remarkably diverse especially when we consider that they were the product of just one composer. What is truly remarkable is that his compositional process remained so consistent throughout his many changeable creative phases.

Tippett was educated at the Royal College of Music and served as Director of Music at Morley College, London. In addition to his creative interests he was also active in broadcasting and television and his talks on music and musicians brought him widespread attention. Many of these have been preserved at the British Library Sound Archive and these will serve as a fascinating exploration into a hitherto unknown side of this dynamic creative artist. By referencing these remarks we are transported back into the historical moment and return to the most authentic source on Tippett’s music: the composer’s own voice.

Michael Tippett lived deep in the English countryside and his creative obsessions required him to live alone. This was both a choice and a necessity but this created a classic conflict between his social-emotional side and his creative side, and it left a deep ‘wound’ on his psyche as he told Dr. Antony Clare during a 1987 session In the Psychiatrists Chair.

1 Clare 23041987

In his interview with Dr. Antony Clare, Tippett continued: ‘The wound is something absolutely autonomous, something of its own …but the price, well, I was always willing to pay the price.’ Those most closely associated with the composer were well aware of his compulsion but some were unable to submit to the severity of his devotion to the creative act. Regarding his relationship with Francesca Allinson he remarked:

2 Clare 23041987

Allinson eventually committed suicide, and in the same interview Tippett admitted:  ‘Another man whom I loved and lived with at times also committed suicide [Karl Hawker]. I may, perhaps, attract people, I don’t know.’

Similar to the poetry of William Blake and William Butler Yeats, Tippett’s music was created from a self-constructed mythology. It is, at times, eccentric, but it is never without a guiding narrative or an internal logic. Tippett created characters of fantastical proportions to render these narratives through intricate operatic plotlines and in his concert music he invented such unique timbres for his themes that they required a realignment of the planes of musical abstraction. These attributes often confounded the public and he was occasionally the target of sharp criticisms, but his singular devotion to the creative impulse allowed him to persevere, and with each successive work his creative identity became stronger and his music became more strikingly original.

Tippett spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the details of his compositions and the essence of his originality lay in the conceptual dimensions that were so uniquely conceived for each individual work. Multiplicities abound in his music but they always remain in the service of a strong integrated vision for the particular composition.  

Tippett’s solitary existence allowed him the contemplative atmosphere in which to envision some radical music but he firmly declared that he needed, always, to maintain a strong contact with the world in which he was a part. His compositional process would transform his experiences into the materials he required for his music. Tippett’s imagination was luminous and it radiated outward, through the splendor of Augustinian windows, onto panoramic vistas that resounded with otherworldly music.  He explained to John Warrack on Musical Influences broadcast on 21 May 1969. 

3 Warrack 21051969

Inspiration for specific works often came from some outside source but his creative impulse was internal and his allegiance to it was unwavering. This process was often a mysterious one, even to the composer but he had an implicit trust in his powers of invention to guide his ear towards the sounds that gave the strongest resonance to his fertile imagination.

4 Amis 01071977

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Tippett in later years by Jane Bown (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Throughout Tippett’s long life he witnessed many shifts in style but he was unaffected by these changes and remained committed to creating his own original music.  Here he talks to Natalie Wheen in one of his last broadcast interviews from 1995.

5 Wheen 021995

Tippett had an exceptional ability to capture the ethos of his time and he used this ability to create music where the hideous—‘mans inhumanity toward man’—and strongest visions of affirmation were placed into the strangest combinations. In the aura of its release, where chaos and brought into a convincing but temporary reconciliation, we are reminded how essential Tippett was to shaping the soundscape of contemporary music.

The Edison Fellowships are funded by the Saga Trust.  Three of the extracts come from recordings in the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) which was digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

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