Tippett was silly and pretentious, but his works are masterpieces

Michael Tippett

Michael Tippett: The Biography
By Oliver Soden
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 768pp, £25/$34.95

It’s virtually a law of nature that composers fall from fashion when they die. And a distinguished victim was Sir Michael Tippett, whose reputation as the grand old man of British music could hardly have been higher when he died in 1998, aged 93. But then it collapsed, with no one much to fight his corner for him.

Apart from a handful of (mostly early) works such as the oratorio A Child of Our Time and a couple of Classic FM favourites like the Fantasia on a Theme of Corelli,
he all but disappeared from concert programmes. And loving Tippett’s music, I was shocked to find that so many of my colleagues in the arts press suddenly didn’t. I remember turning up at a rare performance of his opera The Midsummer Marriage, excited by the prospect – only to run into the critic of another national newspaper looking at his watch and calculating, with a sigh, how long we’d all be stuck in this abomination of a piece.

What Tippett needed was a champion; and at last he’s found one in the author of this book. Oliver Soden is a young but impressive writer who has taken on the task of re-evaluating Tippett. And he does it well, with a generosity of spirit that’s arguably too forgiving of Tippett’s failings as a human being (which were many) but properly celebrates his strengths as a creative artist (which were legion).

Tippett was a sort of Boris Johnson of the music world: a chancer floating through his life half-muddled, half-inspired, too self-obsessed to be the guru figure that he wanted to be, and not exactly pristine in his moral values.

All of this was in his genes, coming as he did from a family of chancers that included a grandfather imprisoned for fraud, a father who went bankrupt but still managed to own a hotel on the Côte d’Azur, and a mother who wrote bad novels and was imprisoned as a suffragette.

That Tippett himself ended up in prison, as a conscientious objector in World War II, was almost inevitable and an experience of which he made great deal – although he was only behind bars for a few weeks, and the fact that he was there at all had less to do with towering principles than with the fact that he wouldn’t stoop to the land work offered him as an alternative to fighting. Having a lofty view of himself as an artist, he thought digging vegetables a waste of time and talent.

As things turned out, those weeks in prison were quite useful – offering the space in which he mentally assembled the piece that put him on the map, A Child of Our Time. Until then, his output had been modest, with an undistinguished student career and a handful of scores whose leanings toward political propaganda of a militant Trotskyite kind made an interesting contrast with his pacifism.

Child brought something new: a maverick, visionary genius that seemed to come from nowhere and, along with other instrumental music of the 1940s and 50s, marked his card as a composer with an ear for the ecstatic. Tippett’s music offered bounding rhythms, teeming figuration and an aching beauty that won over audiences but left performers in despair because it was so awkwardly and (as it seemed) impossibly notated. The premiere of his Symphony No 2 broke down after 16 bars. And Soden puts it neatly when he says that Tippett “refused to compose within the bounds of his own technique … having mastered something, he moved on”.

Musically, the moving on passed through a period of rugged toughness – exemplified by the opera King Priam – to a sequence of theatre works that embraced American pop culture and the language of Sixties psychedelia in sometimes excruciating ways. But they endeared him to a young audience and gave him a celebrity status that briefly eclipsed that of Benjamin Britten – the lifelong rival who had overshadowed him as the supreme force of modern British music but now seemed, by comparison, a staid and backward-looking figure.

At the same time, Tippett was always moving on emotionally, through a cast of friends and lovers (mostly male) who tended to emerge from their encounters with him badly damaged. Tippett set out to embrace the world with sweeping public gestures of concern, wisdom and conscience that bypassed the individual. And as someone whose experience of his music led me to believe him great of heart, and a powerful intellectual and moral force, I’m bound to say that on the few occasions that I met him I was disappointed. He seemed silly and pretentious.

But the music is what counts; and of his 60 or so published works I’d say that at least 30 rank as masterpieces. Soden fairly sums it up when he admits that Tippett’s output “requires audiences to collude with his own embarrassment threshold, always low”. But he finishes the book by quoting the composer’s florid self-assessment of his task – which was to offer to “an age of mediocrity and shallow dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty”.

Michael Tippett certainly did that. And you forgive him much for it.