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06 August 2023

New Tippett acquisitions

The exciting discovery of a previously unknown letter written by Michael Tippett is the latest in a series of acquisitions relating to the composer. The letter was recently donated to the BL and featured in an article in the Guardian newspaper

Photographic portrait of the composer Michael Tippett, by J. S. Lewinsk
Sir Michael Kemp Tippett, portrait by J. S. Lewinski (June 1977) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Letter sent from Wormwood Scrubs (MS Mus. 1943)

The letter (now catalogued as MS Mus. 1943) was sent to Tippett’s close friend Evelyn Maude in August 1943. It was written while the composer was an inmate at Wormwood Scrubs, imprisoned as a conscientious objector for two months during the Second World War. Prisoners were restricted to a single correspondent and one letter a fortnight, but Tippett made up for the limitations by writing five packed letters.

Image of the first page of the letter, showing the strict regulations for prisoners and their correspondents
Part of the front of the letter, showing the strict regulations for communication with prisoners,  as well as Tippett's prisoner number (5832) added in pencil in the bottom left hand corner. British Library, MS Mus. 1943.

Intriguingly, this letter is missing the top portion of one side, so we don't know how it begins - but the rest of it covers a mix of personal reflection, descriptions of prison life, future plans and long strings of requests. Evelyn Maude had lived near to Tippett in Oxted in Surrey, her son was taught French by him at the local school and they generally connected through a shared love of music. She was the dedicatee of his early Symphony in B flat (the manuscript of which was the subject of a blog post back in 2018) and a fellow pacifist, also helping to house and care for refugee families and evacuees during the war.

Image of Evelyn Maude in the 1930s
Evelyn Maude in the 1930s. Image reproduced by permission of Alice Nissen.

The newly acquired letter completes a set of five, with the other four already at the British Library (MS Mus. 1752, ff. 26-32). Although this one is undated, we can work out that it must have been sent on 2 August. It is the penultimate one in the sequence and paints a vivid picture of someone impatient to return to their life outside of prison. The letter includes plans for a busy first day out, with ‘breakfast + bath at Ben’s’ (Benjamin Britten’s house – Britten, along with Peter Pears, had visited Wormwood Scrubs the previous month, in order to give a concert to prisoners), followed by a performance of Tippett’s second string quartet at the Wigmore Hall and then straight onto Cornwall via Paddington station (the night train left at 9.50pm). There is also a lengthy passage about plans for the choir at Morley College (where Tippett was director of music) in the coming autumn term.

We are delighted that this letter has come to light, and extremely grateful to Alice Nissen for donating it to the British Library on behalf of the estate of Stella Maude.

Manuscript of the first piano sonata (MS Mus. 1926/1)

A few months ago the British Library received another important donation, this one the earliest known manuscript of Tippett’s first piano sonata. It is dated 1 June 1938, and at this point in time titled ‘Fantasy Sonata’, ‘op. 4’ (it is now listed as Tippett’s second official work). This manuscript helps fill in another part of the somewhat convoluted story of this piece. It was first performed by Phyllis Sellick (1911-2007) at the Queen’s Hall in 1938 (a recording was also made by her in 1941), then first published in 1942. A revised version was published in 1954. As well as the two published editions, the British Library already held Tippett’s own copy of the first edition, annotated by the composer with the revisions that were to become the second version (Add MS 72017). 

Also in the BL's collection is a manuscript copy of the piece dated July 1938, with fingerings added in pencil, possibly by Phyllis Sellick herself (Add MS 72016). The new manuscript dates from a month before that copy and includes a number of differences (most notably the change in note values for the last movement), all of which are incorporated into the first edition.

Tippett sonata opening
Opening of Tippett's first piano sonata, in the newly acquired manuscript. British Library, MS Mus. 1926/1.

The new manuscript (now catalogued as MS Mus. 1926/1) was generously donated by Kit and Jean Martin, who inherited it from Cyril Allinson, brother of Francesca Allinson, the eventual dedicatee of the piece. The donation also included a draft of a book on English folk-song that Francesca Allinson was planning (MS Mus. 1926/2).

Tippett letters and papers

The largest recent Tippett acquisition arrived at the British Library last year: a collection of letters and other papers, including several important series of correspondence, mostly from Tippett to key figures in his life, such as Anna Kallin, David Ayerst, Meirion Bowen and Francesca Allinson – dedicatee of the first piano sonata mentioned above. ‘Fresca’, among other things a musician and author (her book A Childhood was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1937), was one of the people closest to Tippett in his life. Without a doubt the most affecting item here is the despairing note she left for him before her suicide in April 1945.  

Tippett's 'dream diaries' are another particularly personal element to this collection – written descriptions and possible interpretations of dreams, compiled in early 1939 around the time that he was undergoing Jungian analysis with John Layard, himself a noted anthropologist and pupil of Carl Jung (Layard's book on dream analysis, The Lady of the Hare, was published in 1944). Among other things, Tippett used these sessions to explore, and come to terms with, aspects of his sexuality. Extracts of these diaries were published in Tippett autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues (London, 1991) but this will be the first time that the complete set will be available for researchers.

Cataloguing of this much larger collection - which also includes material relating to the promotion, marketing and commissioning of Tippett's music in the last decades of his life, as well as a small amount of sketch material - has yet to begin, but an announcement will be made once it is available to researchers.


Research materials (MS Mus. 1942)

Both the piano sonata manuscript and the collection of letters and papers mentioned above have resurfaced thanks to research undertaken by Oliver Soden for his biography of Tippett published in 2019. A small but important collection of material collected by Oliver as part of this research is another recently catalogued Tippett collection. This includes various items relating to Tippett’s early folk-song opera Robin Hood, including a draft libretto, a contemporary account of the performance and photographs. There are also copies of letters from Tippett and others to Karl Hawker, where the originals are in private collections or, in a number of cases, untraced. This material has been catalogued as MS Mus. 1942 and descriptions can be read in our online catalogue.  

An overview of Tippett manuscripts at the British Library

Like the collections of other 20th-century composers, the Tippett manuscripts have been acquired over a number of years - the earliest in 1971 and continuing up to the present day. The list below provides collection level descriptions of all the main Tippett items in the BL, together with links to the online catalogue.

Main collections

Add MS 61748-61804. Tippett Collection Part I. 57 volumes. Music manuscripts for most major works composed before 1977. Purchased from Otto Haas, 1980. 

Add MS 63820-63840. Tippett Collection Part II. 21 volumes. Music manuscripts, including scores and sketches for The Mask of Time, the Triple Concerto, String quartet no. 4 and piano sonata no. 4. Purchased from Otto Haas, 1986. 

Add MS 71099-71103. Tippett Collection Part III. 5 volumes. Manuscripts of New Year, Byzantium and String quartet no. 5. Purchased from the Tippett Foundation, 1992. 

Add MS 72001-72065. Tippett Collection Part IV. 65 volumes. Music manuscripts plus a series of 32 notebooks, containing sketches and plans for works and written texts. Purchased Tippett Foundation, 1994. 

Add MS 72066-72071. Tippett Collection Part V. 6 volumes. Early works, purchased from John Amis, 1994. 

MS Mus. 1757. 6 volumes. Material from various sources, including letters to Paul Crossley and Evelyn Maude, autograph score of the early Symphony in B-flat major and sketches and drafts for other works. 

MS Mus. 1765. Michael Tillett collection. 40 volumes of scores, papers and correspondence mainly relating to Tillett’s work as assistant and amanuensis to Tippett. Donated by the estate of Michael Tillett, through the offices of Schott Music, 2011. 

Music Deposit 2022/07. Letters and papers of Michael Tippett from the collection of Nicholas Wright. Purchased March 2022.

Individual manuscripts

Add MS 59808. String quartet no. 1 (first version). Purchased in 1976 as part of the Macnaghten Concerts Collection .

Add MS 61891, ff. 75-76. Discarded leaf from The Ice Break. Purchased from Maggs, 1981. 

Egerton MS 3786. King Priam, autograph full score. Purchased from Karl Hawker, 1971. 

MS Mus. 1858. Four Songs of the British Isles, autograph working manuscript. Purchased from Sotheby’s, 2018. 

MS Mus. 1926. Manuscript material belonging to Michael Tippett and Francesca Allinson (including Piano Sonata no. 1, autograph manuscript). Donated, May 2023. 

MS Mus. 1942. Materials collected by Oliver Soden during research for his biography of Michael Tippett. Donated October 2019.

MS Mus. 1943. Letter from Michael Tippett to Evelyn Maude, 2 August 1943. Donated, July 2023.



Chris Scobie, Lead Curator, Music Manuscripts & Archives