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Sir Michael Kemp Tippett OM CH CBE was an English composer who rose to prominence during and immediately after the Second World War. In his lifetime he was sometimes ranked with his contemporary Benjamin Britten as one of the leading British composers of the 20th century. Among his best-known works are the oratorio A Child of Our Time, the orchestral Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and the opera The Midsummer Marriage.

Tippett's talent developed slowly. He withdrew or destroyed his earliest compositions, and was 30 before any of his works were published. Until the mid-to-late 1950s his music was broadly lyrical in character, before changing to a more astringent and experimental style. New influences, including those of jazz and blues after his first visit to America in 1965, became increasingly evident in his compositions. While Tippett's stature with the public continued to grow, not all critics approved of these changes in style, some believing that the quality of his work suffered as a consequence. From around 1976 Tippett's late works began to reflect the works of his youth through a return to lyricism. Although he was much honoured in his lifetime, critical judgement on Tippett's legacy has been uneven, the greatest praise being generally reserved for his earlier works. His centenary in 2005 was a muted affair; apart from the few best-known works, his music has been performed infrequently in the 21st century.

Having briefly embraced communism in the 1930s, Tippett avoided identifying with any political party. A pacifist after 1940, he was imprisoned in 1943 for refusing to carry out war-related duties required by his military exemption. His initial difficulties in accepting his homosexuality led him in 1939 to Jungian psychoanalysis; the Jungian dichotomy of "shadow" and "light" remained a recurring factor in his music. He was a strong advocate of music education, and was active for much of his life as a radio broadcaster and writer on music.


General character

Bowen has described Tippett as "a composer of our time", one who engaged with the social, political and cultural issues of his day. Arnold Whittall sees the music as embodying Tippett's philosophy of "ultimately optimistic humanism". Rather than ignoring the barbarism of the 20th century, says Kemp, Tippett chose through his works to seek "to preserve or remake those values that have been perverted, while at the same time never losing sight of the contemporary reality". The key early work in this respect is A Child of Our Time, of which Clarke writes: " The words of the oratorio's closing ensemble, 'I would know my shadow and my light, So shall I at last be whole', have become canonical in commentary on Tippett ... this [Jungian] statement crystallizes an ethic, and aesthetic, central to his world-view, and one which underlies all his text-based works".

Sceptical critics such as the musicologist Derrick Puffett have argued that Tippett's craft as a composer was insufficient for him to deal adequately with the task that he had set himself of "transmut[ing] his personal and private agonies into ... something universal and impersonal". Michael Kennedy has referred to Tippett's "open‐eyed, even naive outlook on the world", while accepting the technical sophistication of his music. Others have acknowledged his creative ingenuity and his willingness to adopt whatever means or techniques were necessary to fit his intentions.

Tippett's music is marked by the expansive nature of his melodic line—the Daily Telegraph's Ivan Hewett refers to his "astonishingly long-breathed melodies". According to Jones, a further element of the "individual voice" that emerged in 1935 was Tippett's handling of rhythm and counterpoint, demonstrated in the First String Quartet—Tippett's first use of the additive rhythm and cross-rhythm polyphony which became part of his musical signature.This approach to metre and rhythm is derived in part from Bartók and Stravinsky but also from the English madrigalists. Sympathy with the past, observed by Colin Mason in an early appraisal of the composer's work, was at the root of the neoclassicism that is a feature of Tippett's music, at least until the Second Symphony (1957).

In terms of tonality, Tippett shifted his ground in the course of his career. His earlier works, up to The Midsummer Marriage, are key-centred, but thereafter he moved through bitonality into what the composer Charles Fussell has summarised as "the freely-organized harmonic worlds" of the Third Symphony and The Ice Break. Although Tippett flirted with the "twelve-tone" technique—he introduced a twelve-tone theme into the "storm" prelude that begins The Knot Garden—Bowen records that he generally rejected serialism, as incompatible with his musical aims.

Compositional process

Tippett described himself as the receiver of inspiration rather than its originator, the creative spark coming from a particular personal experience, which might take one of many forms but was most often associated with listening to music. The process of composing was lengthy and laborious, the actual writing down of the music being preceded by several stages of gestation; as Tippett put it, "the concepts come first, and then a lot of work and imaginative processes until eventually, when you're ready, finally ready, you look for the actual notes". Tippett elaborated: "I compose by first developing an overall sense of the length of the work, then of how it will divide itself into sections or movements, then of the kind of texture or instruments or voices that will be performing it. I prefer not to consider the actual notes of the composition until this process ... has gone as far as possible". Sometimes the time required to see a project through from conception to completion was very lengthy—seven years, Tippett says, in the case of the Third Symphony. In the earlier, contemplative stages he might be simultaneously engaged on other works, but once these stages were complete he would dedicate himself entirely to the completion of the work in hand.

Tippett preferred to compose in full score; once the writing began, progress was often not fluent, as evidenced by Tippett's first pencil draft manuscripts which show multiple rubbings-out and reworkings. In this, the musicologist Thomas Schuttenhelm says, his methods resembled those of Beethoven, with the difference that "whereas Beethoven's struggle is considered a virtue of his work, and almost universally admired, Tippett's was the source and subject of a debate about his competency as a composer".


The style that emerged from Tippett's long compositional apprenticeship was the product of many diverse influences. Beethoven and Handel were initial models (Handel above Bach, who in Tippett's view lacked drama), supplemented by 16th- and 17th-century masters of counterpoint and madrigal—Thomas Weelkes, Monteverdi and Dowland. Purcell became significant later, and Tippett came to lament his ignorance of Purcell during his RCM years: "It seems to me incomprehensible now that his work was not even recommended in composition lessons as a basic study for the setting of English".

Tippett recognised the importance to his compositional development of several 19th- and 20th-century composers: Berlioz for his clear melodic lines, Debussy for his inventive sound, Bartók for his colourful dissonance, Hindemith for his skills at counterpoint, and Sibelius for his originality in musical forms. He revered Stravinsky, sharing the Russian composer's deep interest in older music.Tippett had heard early ragtime as a small child before the First World War; he noted in his later writings that, in the early years of the 20th century, ragtime and jazz "attracted many serious composers thinking to find ... a means to refresh serious music by the primitive". His interest in these forms led to his fascination with blues, articulated in several of his later works. Among his contemporary composers, Tippett admired Britten and shared his desire to end the perception of English music as provincial. He also had a high regard for Alan Bush, with whom he joined forces to produce the 1934 Pageant of Labour. "I can remember the excitement I felt when he outlined to me his plan for a major string quartet".

Although influences of folk music from all parts of the British Isles are evident in Tippett's early works, he was wary of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, believing that much of the music presented as "English" by Cecil Sharp and his followers originated elsewhere. Notwithstanding his doubts, Tippett took some inspiration from these sources. The composer David Matthews writes of passages in Tippett's music which "evoke the 'sweet especial rural scene' as vividly as Elgar or Vaughan Williams ... perhaps redolent of the Suffolk landscape with its gently undulating horizons, wide skies and soft lights".


After the withdrawn works written in the 1920s and early 1930s, analysts generally divide Tippett's mature compositional career into three main phases, with fairly fluid boundaries and some internal subdivision in each main period. The first phase extends from the completion of the String Quartet No. 1 in 1935 to the end of the 1950s, a period in which Tippett drew on the past for his main inspiration. The 1960s marked the beginning of a new phase in which Tippett's style became more experimental, reflecting both the social and cultural changes of that era and the broadening of his own experiences. The mid-1970s produced a further stylistic change, less marked and sudden than that of the early 1960s, after which what Clarke calls the "extremes" of the experimental phase were gradually replaced by a return to the lyricism characteristic of the first period, a trend that was particularly manifested in the final works.

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