Book Review: Reaching a Tippett point?

By Simon Barrow
July 21, 2019

Oliver Soden, Michael Tippett: The Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019), 768pp, ISBN: 9781474606028. 

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The first things that should be said about Oliver Soden’s absorbing biography of landmark twentieth century composer Michael Tippett are that it is beautifully written, compellingly narrated, tenderly poetic in places, and the product of an astonishing amount of research – much of it involving original, never previously accessed sources and materials. 

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was an unpredictable, effervescent, tortured and sometimes brilliant composer. His life also spanned the greater part of a fascinatingly turbulent century, and his commitments to socialism, pacifism and many humanitarian causes reflected a personal (even more than a political) response to the tragic and troubled times in which he lived. Rejecting conventional religious faith, he embraced idiosyncratic versions of Jungian self-psychologising – along with a hungry absorption of diverse literary and cultural influences, languages and wide-ranging humanistic intellectual explorations – as the basis of his creative impulse. He also rejoiced in junk telly in his later years. 

At the centre of a life marked by sometimes dramatic contrasts, vivid joys, difficulties, losses, passionate loves and an almost ascetic artistic sensibility stands the music that this life birthed, of course. Since his death in 1998 at the grand old age of 93, the majority of Tippett’s compositional output over 61 years (from the first string quartet in 1934-5 to ‘Caliban’s Song’ in 1995, not counting earlier juvenilia) has been too frequently overlooked in regular concert repertoire. Beyond staples such as the profoundly moving wartime oratorio ‘A Child of Our Time’ (especially its African-American Spirituals), the Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli, and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, performances of Tippett’s works have been few and far between in the land of his birth and elsewhere. The last opera, ‘New Year’, still awaits a recording.  The libretti, which the composer laboured on himself following the advice of T. S. Eliot, are still derided for their supposedly clumsy, gauche and muddled features.

In fact a widely ascribed belief has grown up that Tippett’s early output, through to the first acclaimed opera, ‘The Midsummer Marriage’, was warm, lyrical and “accessible”. Then his subsequent flitting across modernist styles starting with ‘King Priam’ (his second opera, premiered in 1962) became confused, acerbic, eccentrically trendy and obscure, it is said. Finally, pursuers of this schema suggest, there was a late flowering of resurgent lyricism which, after the composer’s demise, was discovered to have come too late properly to recover his mixed and tarnished reputation. 

Although Soden is clear that what he has written is a ‘life’, rather than a ‘life and works’, there is due attention to Tippett’s music in broad terms. Much of it can be justifiably directed, inter alia, towards disproving this rather simplistic three-part typology, to addressing some of the misrepresentations that it involves (including those surrounding those curiously imaginative texts the composer produced), and to advocating the value of many of the middle and late period works. In fact, Soden suggests, it is these later works which offer a fresh perspective on the earlier period. As Eliot, one of Tippett’s several muses, famously wrote: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding). 

I find myself very much in accord with this perspective, and with the biography’s epilogue, where the author – seeking throughout to withhold overly partial judgments – sets out his own stall regarding the legacy of his subject. Indeed, the word “accessible” (with all the pre-suppositional baggage that it invariably carries in a musical context) proves particularly unhelpful in approaching Tippett. This is partly because density is a natural feature in pretty much everything he produced anyway, and partly because the effort of listening and re-listening to later, allegedly “difficult” works – such as the third symphony, ‘The Mask of Time’ and the Triple concerto for violin, viola and cello – will be rewarded abundantly through the surfacing of ever-new layers of meaning, possibility and mastery. This is my experience, at any rate. But Tippett continues to attract a determined band of detractors as well as a large number of admirers. While this first full-length biography is unlikely to shift the views of a hardened, negative minority, the evidence of its reception so far is that it is encouraging increased openness towards Tippett, and is appealing to those curious about both the life and music of one of the most unconventional, intriguing and colourful recent composers in the English-speaking world and beyond.

The book itself falls into seven sections, framed as dramatic episodes. Both for people who think they know the composer well, and for those newer to him, there are fresh discoveries from beginning to end. Much more light than has been available previously is cast on Michael Tippett’s early life, trials and influences. The sometimes chaotic and uneven nature of his personal and sexual relationships is dealt with honestly and straightforwardly. Soden can be as disarmingly blunt as his subject at times. So although this book is imbued with undisguised admiration for its subject, what we have here is no hagiography. The detailed research and its insightful deployment ensures that.  

The story and significant extent of Tippett’s embrace of communism (specifically Trotskyism) in the era of the rise of fascism is recounted more fully than ever before. It reveals the violent impulses in a man enormously committed to rooting out injustices in the world, but also immensely unsettled by his own unresolved psychological lesions. The personal and political transitions that enabled Tippett to move from revolutionary anger to a passionate rejection of war and violence in all its forms are still unclear in many respects, even where clues are plentiful. Here is a man who could be publicly flamboyant, but who was also impenetrably private in his yearnings, processes and personal foibles. Soden does not hide the contradictions. But nor does he seek to resolve or synthesise them too readily. Overall, this biography provides a gripping narrative which is infinitely clearer and more elegant than anything Tippett himself ever wrote (his prose was an often ugly, if stimulating, affair), but which also deals appropriately with the tangles it frequently has to portray.

Michael Tippett, the man and his music, after a celebrity flourishing in the 1980s and early 1990s (he even appeared on ‘Wogan’ with George Michael and Andrew Ridgely of Wham!) has sunk back into the shadows since the celebrations of the centenary of his birth in 2005. Yet for me, as for Oliver Soden, Tippett has produced some of the most remarkable, important and deeply affecting music of the past hundred years. This biography, which surely cannot fail to intrigue and engage as much as its subject, could and should prove to be an important staging post in the re-establishment of Tippett’s reputation as a composer and as a cultural and intellectual figure. It is also evident testimony to the humanity, humour, chram, fragility, vulnerability, creativity, failings and (sometimes) recklessness of the man himself. In a world where nativist fears and dark impulses are increasingly being foregrounded and traded on both sides of the Atlantic, Soden has gifted us the wonderfully told story of a musical giant whose artistic vision glows with hope and flourishing, and whose long-term significance as a composer will likely be because of, rather than in spite of, the multifarious complexities and dynamisms it embraces. 

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© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia, the beliefs, politics and ethics think-tank. His own book on the composer, Transfiguring the Everyday: The Musical Vision of Michael Tippett, will be published by Siglum in December 2019. More at @MusicTippett on Twitter.  

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