Running the entire course of the 20th century, Michael Tippett’s life (1905–1998) was devoted to innovation. He was an English composer who worked within established forms —symphonies, oratorios, string quartets, piano sonatas — to startlingly new effect. But his innovation was not just as a composer. He was also a political and social radical, embedded in Trotskyite, pacifist and gay rights ideas. The newness made itself known in a long attempt to find novel ways of living.
Oliver Soden’s biography feels like an attempt to answer a series of questions. How, in the 20th century, should a creative artist live? Or be a pacifist? Or a homosexual? The answers were sometimes wrong; the music could be disastrously unsuccessful. But Tippett got things right too, though his age sent him to prison for it. Sometimes, also, the curtain rises on The Midsummer Marriage, the greatest English opera before The Mask of Orpheus.
The biography can hardly be anything but compelling, and this — the first full-dress one, 20 years after Tippett’s death — is an exceptional piece of work. It has so much to say about the 20th century from an unusual and compelling angle that it ought to appeal to many readers who don’t necessarily find themselves deep in the world of art music. Tippett has been much neglected since his death by both performers and commentators compared to his ubiquitous contemporary Benjamin Britten. On the other hand, I would say that the post-1990 generation of composers is much more interested in him than in Britten. The Britten bibliography may be 100 times the size, but it contains hardly anything as brilliant as this book. Let the revival begin.
Tippett came from a radical background. His mother, Isabel, was a militant suffragette who served her time in Holloway (his father was under strict instructions not to pay the alternative of a fine). The questioning habit was passed on to Tippett not only through subversive-minded parents but a brutal school, and the chance gift of homosexuality. At 18 he wrote a letter to George Bernard Shaw asking for his views on same-sex relationships.
The career was a long time coming, partly because Tippett was not a naturally fluent or ingratiating prodigy: his technique was painfully acquired over decades. But it was also his big-boned bohemian temperament that turned him into a problematic outsider. The 1930s socialist camps, all shorts and idealism, were Tippett’s natural habitat; he was among the hikers who carried out the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 and mounted a fondly remembered production of The Beggar’s Opera as a community endeavour. (George Orwell wrote contemptuously about the milieu — its sandals, vegetarianism, ‘pansies’ and pacifism.)
As the decade went on, such well-meaning youth organisations as the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift gave way to Trotskyite meetings, a radical boyfriend from the Bauhaus called Wilfred Franks, and colossal pageants about working-class struggles with music by the now forgotten communist composer Alan Bush. ‘There were ballets of deprived child workers.’
Later, Tippett never admitted to his membership of communist and Trotskyite organisations, and Soden has excavated much fascinating material, taking us with irresistible elan through the factions and the tiny, malevolent groupuscules. Tippett was in the remarkable position of becoming, in 1934, a Trotskyite entryist to the Communist party, hoping to push it towards violent revolution. Some of those political positions were unusual, to say the least: ‘My one hope,’ he wrote to Alan Bush in 1936, ‘is that the British empire will go under and Hitler win.’ When war broke out, his pacifism dictated conscientious objection of the most extreme variety, to the point of refusing any kind of war work. Unlike most conscientious objectors, he was sent to prison. His mother, who hadn’t changed a bit since her Holloway days, declared it ‘her proudest moment’.
It is a moot point whether Tippett’s incarceration damaged his career or not. It cetainly turned him into a controversial public figure and gave him (within a certain coterie) an air, not entirely undeserved, for saintliness. His war, and his politics, had also produced a masterpiece, the oratorio about the political assassin Herschel Grynszpan, A Child of Our Time. As Soden shows, he was following a direct command from Trotsky himself in writing it.
After the war, Tippett’s musical career began to take off. The radical edge never left him, though it was sometimes concealed. The 1948 BBC commission for a work to celebrate the birth of Prince Charles contains a good deal of old material from a prewar Stalinist pageant, Robin Hood, no doubt to amuse the comrades tuning in.
The music can be simply magnificent, but it is definitely challenging for both audiences and performers. A reputation for unworldliness or, at worst, ineptitude followed Tippett around. Although The Midsummer Marriage had the immense advantages of designs by Barbara Hepworth and a performance at its debut by the young Joan Sutherland, it didn’t really sink in until a later revival. The first performance of the second symphony fell apart, and the BBC controller of music wasted no time in blaming Tippett’s incompetence: ‘The comprehensive technique of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is equal to all reasonable demands.’
In fact, as Soden shows in detail, the debacle was the fault of a miscounting flautist. Like many great composers, Tippett had to teach musicians how to play his music, rather than writing to their habitual practices. The sound it makes is strange, unimagined and wonderfully exuberant, from the Ritual Dances to the magical slow movement of the great triple concerto. Opinions continue to differ. Soden says the third symphony is his masterpiece, while Alexander Goehr’s judgment on the same piece — ‘loathsome’ — is also faithfully recorded.
The joy of Soden’s biography is largely in its novelistic grasp of the telling details. Gay men in the 1920s wore white flannels to the Criterion bar as a coded uniform. The Royal Opera House relied on Grenadier guardsmen to bulk out the closing scenes of Die Meistersinger — they disappeared during the 1926 General Strike, busy dealing with real-life protest.
There are also wonderful evocations of Tippett’s clothes from the 1960s onwards, when he could dress however he wanted, and frequently did — turning up at receptions at the British embassy in Hawaiian shorts —and sexual manners which caused comment but no serious objection. (I recommend the anecdote about Tippett groping the young Alan Hollinghurst, whom he didn’t know, in the foyer of the Royal Opera House.) Tippett made up his life as he went along, going through a succession of intense relationships with all sorts of very different men, not much bothering to conceal anything from the world’s gaze. His last boyfriend, Meirion Bowen, thinks he belonged to the next century. The word ‘flaunt’ was made for him and, happily, for his music, too.
Soden’s hero, despite all the spectacular silliness, the taking of wrong turns, the absurdities and the projects which could be magical, embarrassing or both (the Iris Murdochian opera The Knot Garden), emerges as a thoroughly good egg. It must be admitted, however, that his standing has fallen off a cliff since his death. Soden has a number of cogent explanations for this. Unlike Britten, Tippett amassed no network of devoted performers; he left no foundation or festival to encourage performance of his work, which is always out of range for the amateur, and there are astonishingly few recordings of even his best pieces. It proved impossible to find a recording of his colossal 1982 oratorio, The Mask of Time, which was greeted as one of the great masterpieces of the century.
But a revival is surely on the way: one of the most reviled of the operas, The Ice Break, proved a stupendous experience in a new production in Birmingham in 2015. This splendid biography ought to hasten that revival on its way.