01-08-1998

Sir Michael Tippett

On this date the British composer SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT died (b. 1905). Born in London as Michael Kemp Tippett, he studied music at the Royal College. Unlike his contemporaries William Walton and Benjamin Britten, Tippett was a late developer as a composer and was severely critical of his early compositions. Tippett was regarded by many as an outsider in British music, a view that may have been related to his conscientious objector status during World War II and his sexuality. His pacifist beliefs led to a prison sentence during the war: in 1943, at the height of the war, he was summoned to appear before a British government tribunal to justify his conscientious objector status. Instead of receiving an absolute exemption, he was ordered to do full-time farm work. However, Tippett refused to comply with this ruling and was subsequently imprisoned for three months at HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

For many years his music was considered ungratefully written for voices and instruments, and therefore difficult to perform. An intense intellectual, he maintained a much wider knowledge and interest in the literature and philosophy of other countries (Africa, Europe) than was common among British musicians. His (sometimes quirky) libretti for his operas and other works reflect his passionate interest in the dilemmas of human society and the enduring strength of the human spirit.

Tippett was never a prolific composer, and his works, completed slowly, comprised five string quartets, four concerti, four symphonies, five operas and a number of vocal and choral works. His music is typically seen as falling into four distinct periods. The first period (1935–1947) includes the first three quartets, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the oratorio A Child of Our Time (written to his own libretto at the encouragement of T. S. Eliot and first performed by Morley College Choir) and the First Symphony.

This period is characterized by strenuous contrapuntal energy and deeply lyrical slow movements. The second period, from then until the late 1950s, includes the opera The Midsummer Marriage, the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, the Piano Concerto, and the Second Symphony; this period features rich textures and effervescent melody.

The third period, the 1960s and ’70s, is in stark contrast, and is characterized by abrupt statements and simplicity of texture, as in the opera King Priam, the Concerto for Orchestra and the Second Piano Sonata. The fourth period is a rich mixture of all these styles, using many devices, such as quotation (from Ludwig van Beethoven and Modest Mussorgsky, among others). The main works of this period were the Third Symphony, the operas The Ice Break and New Year, and the large-scale choral work The Mask of Time.

Tippett was knighted in 1966, and awarded the Order of Merit in 1983.

He remained very active composing and conducting. His opera, New Year, received its premiere in 1989. Then came Byzantium, a piece for soprano and orchestra premiered in 1991. His autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues also appeared in 1991. A string quartet followed in 1992. In 1995 his ninetieth birthday was celebrated with special events in Britain, Canada and the US, including the premiere of his final work, The Rose Lake. In that year a collection of his essays, Tippett on Music, also appeared. In 1996, Tippett moved from Wiltshire to London. In 1997, in Stockholm for a retrospective of his concert music, he developed pneumonia. He was brought home to England, where he died early in 1998.