MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Britten, Tippett and the Second English Musical Renaissance (Souvenir Programme for the London Sinfonietta's Britten/Tippett Festival, September/December1986)

There are three things about which people invariably telI lies. These are: money, masturbation and composing at the piano. As regards the third of these, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett always told the truth. Britten, fluent and speedy though his creative processes were, constantly tested his ideas out on the piano. Tippett, finding composition an extremely arduous process, devised methods of his own, conjuring at the keyboard a kind of aura of sound; playing, singing, humming, shouting he gradually extracts not on/y the notes that he needs but the tone colours also.

Working thus, the two composers firmly rejected one of the standard tenets of academic music training in their day, wherein Beethoven's deafness was considered a sin to be visited upon succeeding generations of composers hence, all those exercises and examinations in harmony, counterpoint and orchestration undertaken in total silence. For Britten and Tippett, it was a first step towards the absolute professionalism that marked them out eventually as figureheads for a fresh surge of compositional activity in this country after the Second World War.

They were not, of course, the absolute pioneers in what numerous books and articles have called the "second English musical Renaissance". This phenomenon stemmed at first from nationalist self-discovery. The folk-song movement, instigated by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and a new-found delight in the achievements of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century composers the musicians of the first English Musical Renaissance stimulated by scholars such as E. H. Fellowes and R. 0. Morris, made many aware of the national heritage in music. Few composers remained unaffected by it all. Associated with this musical antiquarianism and folkiness, however, was a strong element of anti-intellectualism. There prevailed a deep suspicion of composers who were well-read, able to debate issues of philosophy, politics or whatever, and whose thinking to some extent shaped their creative efforts. Britten and Tippett had to overcome this, and to large extent they succeeded. We can now see that their work would never have acquired such richness and scope without the stimulus provided by wide-ranging extra- musical interests.

Secondly to no lesser degree than any other members of Victorian society, composers had been under pressure to conform. Obsessive professionalism in music was regarded as slightly unhealthy, allied surely to dubious morals and uncertain finance. Only composition undertaken as a pastime by gentleman amateurs, and kept within certain approved genres oratorios on Biblical themes after the manner of Mendelssohn, domestic vocal and instrumental music satisfied the highest canons of respectability.

With Elgar, all that began to change, and (to cut a long and obviously more intricate story short) it was eventually through the example of Britten and Tippett that there came about a post-war boom in composition exhibiting the plurality of styles and approaches common to art-music all over the world. Composers may still have shaky morals and speculative bank balances. But they are no longer stigmatized or regarded as automatically inferior to continental musicians with exotic sounding-names; and there are infinitely more chances for their works to be performed and circulated.

Although they knew and admired each other greatly from the early 1940s, Britten and Tippett wrote all their music in complete independence of each other. They were, however, strongly aware of themselves as outsiders. Both, after all, were pacifists, and members of the recently formed Peace Pledge Union; both homosexuals (illegal, even in private, in Britain until the mid-sixties) and political dissenters, though they were never gay activists and their dissent was mainly directed towards providing comfort and assistance for people in distress the unemployed and ill-nourished, the victims of war and persecution.

Britten, for instance, gave many wartime recitals with Peter Pears (including several in prisons) under the auspices of the Council for the Encouragement of the Arts; and as accompanist to Yehudi Menuhin, he performed at Belsen and other German concentration camps at the end of the war; additionally, he wrote music for propaganda films. Tippett, in the 1930s, organised and conducted an orchestra of out-of-work cinema and theatre musicians. He collaborated also with Alan Bush in musical performances at Labour party rallies. Although, the example of human and artistic integrity which Britten and Tippett offered at this time had a wide influence, inspiring many younger musicians to a comparable social awareness and concern.

Both of them stood for internationalism in music, but they were active in the 1940s and 50s primarily at a local level. Britten's establishment of a festival at Aldeburgh quickly attracted worldwide interest and esteem. Tippett's years as Musical Director at Morley College (1940-51) were notable for some of the most cosmopolitan concert series London had known, along with a lively atmosphere engendered by the activities of a number of important refugee musicians whom he had invited to teach and participate in the concerts (they included Walter Bergmann, Walter Goehr, Matyas Seiber and members of what was to become the Amadeus Quartet).

Britten and Tippett first met, in fact, at Morley Col/ege and they soon became firm friends. Britten helped Tippett obtain a few small commissions to write new pieces and accompanied Pears in the first performance of Boyhood's End (1943) and The Heart's Assurance (1951). But above all he encouraged him to set up the first performance of his oratorio, A Child of Our Time (which Tippett had composed just at the outbreak of World War II).

A Child of Our Time embodied Tippett's response to a specific Nazi pogrom against the Jews and was his first attempt at a general statement of compassion for the scapegoat in societies of all periods and nations. Its London premiere in 1944 was soon followed by a radio broadcast (organised by Arthur Bliss) and it was not long afterwards heard in Holland, Hamburg and Turin (conducted by Karajan). Even in periods when Tippett's stature as a composer has been seriously contested, this work has generally received warm praise. It has been performed all over the world, from Zambia to Tokyo, Perth to Sao Paolo: and everywhere audiences and performers have tended to identify the work with the situation in their own country.

In the same period, Britten's reputation rocketed with the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes, a/so with a scapegoat as its central figure: though this time it was not someone caught up in the clash of political conflict, but a more locally familiar victim a rough fisherman who is also a visionary dreamer, proud, aloof, but gauchely ambivalent in his treatment of his boy apprentices, and as a result harrassed and hounded by the inhabitants of his village.

In the course of the rest of his career, Britten wrote a further eleven operas, all of which have as their protagonists the victims of some form of persecution. Tippett's technically more adventurous operatic oeuvre limited to four distinctive pieces (with a fifth currently in progress) showed a similar capacity to tackle the major issues affecting individuals and societies in the modern epoch. So, between them, Britten and Tippett managed to put English opera back in the international league.

Although increasingly the two composers developed as separate musical personalities, they had already one important feature in common; their ability to set English texts memorably to music. This is intriguing, because their aesthetic standpoints on the matter were altogether different and triggered off a lot of debate.

For Britten, song was the outcome of a harmonious marriage of words and music, both conceived on the most elevated level. Consequently, he was always ready to use great poetry of the past such as that by Shakespeare, John Donne, William Blake, Pushkin, Holderlin and he was ever in search of writers of quality with whom he could collaborate on operatic projects: hence his involvement with W. H. Auden (on his earliest opera, Paul Bunyan), E. M. Forster, William Plomer, and so on. (Such writers gave him far more problems, incidentally, than he encountered when he composed specifically for distinguished performing artists, such as Clifford Curzon, Julius Katchen, Julian Bream, Rostropovich and a host of singers, led by Peter Pears, Fischer-Dieskau, Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. Part of the situation was that Britten always felt ill at ease with anyone unable to match his own standards.)

Tippett, following the philosopher of art, Suzanne Langer, and accepting also the advice and support offered him by T. S. Eliot, adopted another stance. He came to feel that in the process of fusing words and music, the essential metaphoricai content of the words was "swallowed up" within the new metaphorical meanings supplied by the music.

To have verse or a dramatic text constructed by a writer of great distinction would be to risk a conflict with his music. When Tippett asked Eliot to write a libretto for A Child of Our Time having supplied him with a draft scenario the poet had advised him to make up a text himself, as his own contribution might seriously rival the qualities inherent in Tippett's music. Thereafter, Tippett wrote and compiled his own texts, including those for his four operas, and his largest concert-hall work, The Mask of Time (1 980-2). Only rarely has he used existing texts e.g. The Vision of St Augustine (1963-5) based on Augustine's Confessions intermingled with Biblical quotations though in his songs and shorter choral pieces Tippett manipulates poetry to suit his theme. Tippett's position has attracted sharp criticism (notably from Pears) and his dramatic libretti, increasingly emulating the mosaic method of Eliot's The Waste Land, have been particularly censured. Nevertheless, he insists that they be read as "texts-for-music". His aim is always an amalgam in which words and music become an indissoluble unity.

Despite these aesthetic divergencies, Britten and Tippett, at the outset, shared in a Purcellian tradition which, they recognised, entailed the dramatic heightening of words and verbal inflexions through music. Britten adopted this approach irrespective of the language he was setting.

For instance, the baroque style of declamation, which we find throughout his Auden cycle, On this island (1937), is encountered again immediately at the start of the Rimbaud cycle Les llluminations (1938), the string orchestra evoking the brilliance of trumpet fanfares and the recurrent motto phrase "i'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage" underpinned by heavy pizzicato chords a very Purcellian method of etchin~ words and music into the memory.

Not long after these early song-cycles appeared, Tippet came across some volumes of the original complete edition o) Purcell (he found them in the rubble of Morley College, which was hit by a landmine in 1941). He, too, studied Purcell's techniques with a keen sense of their usefulness to his own compositions. Soon, he embarked upon a continuous Purcell- type cantata, Boyhood's End, based on passages from W. H. Hudson's autobiography, Far Away and Long Ago (1918). As Pears observed, the cantata has a structural flexibility that enables the maximum intensity of feeling to be communicated articulating strongly, thus, the recollection of boyhood's awareness of nature contained in both text and music. While individual words are coloured and enhanced by Purcellian melismata, the entire cantata grows organically from its opening utterance, "What, then, did I want?"

In their dramatic works, Tippett and Britten continued to make word-setting fulfil the same objectives. Good examples might be Tarquinius's ride to Rome in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia (1946) or Mark's aria, celebrating dawn and the singing of the lark, in Act 1 of The Midsummer Marriage (1946- 52). Writing choral compositions, they both seized eagerly opon the techniques of the sixteenth-century madrigal: and for Tippett these proved germane to the discovery of his own rhythmically free, linear style - cf. his Second String Quartet (1 941 -2).

Through such an expansion of the horizons of vocal music, Britten and Tippett opened up musical territory quite distinct from that occupied by most of their immediate predecessors and contemporaries (with the sole exception of Holst, whose choral mvsic prefigured much that we find in Britten, and whose stylistic eclecticism anticipated Tippett). It was quite a drastic thing to do. For, in turning to pre-classical models, they were not only flying in the face of their initial academic training which referred them to Brahms and Mendelssohn: they were also separating out from figures like Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Lambert etc. to provide English choral music a totally fresh image.

After all, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1930-31) - the most striking English choral work from between the wars - owed nothing to Purcell or to madrigal traditions: and the laboured choral writing of Bliss's Morning Heroes(1 930), greatly impairs the fulfilment of its great potential as a commentary upon the experience of war. Both works are manifestly extensions of Elgar's choral oeuvre. Of Tippett's exact contemporaries Alan Rawsthorne produced excellent orchestral and chamber music, but enjoyed little success in the vocal domain: while Constant Lambert, in The R io Grande (1 927) incorporated every kind of exciting, jazzy experiment without advancing his choral idiom beyond Delius. By contrast, the influence of Britten's vocal writing was quickly evident in works by Lennox Berkeley, John Joubert, Gordon Crosse, Nicholas Maw, and by numerous younger figures. For more recent, up-and-coming composers, anxious to discover and explore alternative modes of word- setting, the methods of Britten and Tippett - whether acceptable to them or not - can serve as a definite point of departure.

A characteristic of both composers is that neither belonged to any "school" or "coterie". Each evolved a personal idiom, partly through self-study, partly by submitting to the intensive training offered by influential teachers - in Britten's case, with the composer Frank Bridge, in Tippett's, during his year-long study of fugue with R. 0. Morris. But they were both responsive to music of all periods and cultures, and instinctively allowed their styles to broaden considerably in consequence.

Tippett, for instance, incorporated negro spirituals into A Child of Our Time as modern equivalents to the chorales in Lutheran Passions. He a/so heard jazz and blues singers, early on, and his whole harmonic language became suffused with blues inflexions - from the String Quartet No. 1 (1934-5) right up to the Triple Concerto (1978-9) and beyond. Both composers heard Balinese music in the 1930s: in Tippett's case, on records, in Britten's, through the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, whose piano-duet transcriptions of Balinese ceremonial music they premiered in 1938 and also recorded. Tippett's initial reaction was to include a pseudo-Balinese variation in the first movements of his Piano Sonata No. 1 (2934). Later on, after he had visited Bali and Java, he studied the different sty/es of gamelan orchestras more carefully, and thus formulated particular ritornelli in his Triple Concerto as we//as the general gong-tormented ethos of its s/ow movement. Britten, too, visited Bali and his response to the music is most explicit in the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (195 7) and the opera, Death in Venice (1971-3), though it can be detected as an unconscious influence (perhaps) in the Sunday Morning interlude from Peter Grimes.

They had, in fact, had such strong instincts as to what was relevant to their own creative ambitious, that there was never any question of their accepting the historical inevitability of the Schoenberg twelve-note procedures or any other method or aesthetic ideology. In this they remained distant from figures like Elisabeth Lutyens and Humphrey Searle, whose lonely careers centred around a commitment to the Second Viennese School. True, Britten was actively dissuaded from studying with Alban Berg in the 1930s - a symptom of the suspicious, parochial attitude towards the continental scene then current in British musical circles. But although he quickly accepted the influence of Mahler and Berg - cf. the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) - he left it behind, rather, when opera claimed the forefront of his attention. Tippett, meanwhile, had read Schoenberg's Harmonielehre and other treatises, but had rapidly concluded that dodecaphony and serialism were phenomenologically in error: theory and sonic outcome were not, for him, compatible.

Nevertheless, both composers verged at times on a kind of dodecaphonic usage. Britten's The Turn of the Screw is based on a twelve-note motif, but its formal outline fifteen scenes and a prologue, linked by sixteen orchestral interludes in the shape of a theme with fifteen variations, owes little to Schoenberg. In his Cantata Academica (1959) he almost parodies twelve-note method by basing the first twelve movements (the thirteenth recapitulates the first) on the succession of twelve notes which forms the opening theme.

The "storm" prelude that starts Tippett's opera, The Knot Garden outlines a twelve-note theme: and its various recurrences - especially in the whirling maze episodes of Act 2 - entail contractions and expansions of the theme, even ultimately a complete harmonic and orchestral assumption of its characteristics in the final bars of Act 3. But again it was an unconscious process, not one guided by Schoenbergian precedent. The fact is that Britten and Tippett were engaged in forging alternatives to the mid-European compositional tradition

However much Britten warmed to Mahler and Berg, and however much Tippett revered Beethoven as a god, both had to complement or modify the formal and stylistic prototypes they offered with models from pre-classical or non-Western music. Hence, their lifelong fascination with the ground-bass - cf. the Chacony from Britten's Second String Quartet (1945), or the passacaglia in Peter Grimes; the second movement of Tippett's First Symphony (1944-5) or the finale of his Second Symphony (1957), the proliferating ground-basses in The Midsummer Marriage; or the sixth movement of The Mask of Time. Canon, fantasia and chorale prelude were almost equally important to them; so was the baroque practice of adding instrumental obbligati to solo voice-lines cf. Britten's Serenade (1943) or his Nocturne (1958); or Jenifer's aria from Act 1 of The Midsummer Marriage. Tippett exulted in recapturing the unfettered exuberance of jazz improvisation, and frequently in his later compositions emulated the montage effect of superimposed contrasting "musics" exemplified in Charles Ives - cf. Songs for Dov (1970) or the third movement of Symphony No. 3 (1 970-2).

The necessity for such stylistic pluralism stemmed, in Britten's music, from the demands of the dramatic works that dominated his output. With Tippett, it derived from the broadening expressive span of his music. It was given great impetus, also, by his discovery, in King Priam (2961) of a building-block, mosaic method and outlining and scoring his musical ideas, which he learned from Stravinsky's Agon. This enabled him to juxtapose and superimpose musical ideas of the utmost diversity and extremes of contrast. Stravinsky's ability, in fact, to sustain his musical identity, no matter how disparate the elements he incorporated from other musical sources, was an inspiration to them both (though Britten was more secretive about this than Tippett).

The fact that both composers had attained such pre-eminence in vocal and dramatic music did not invalidate or hinder their work in purely instrumental composition. For Britten, non-vocal works were merely less of a priority. Although out of sympathy with Beethoven and Brahms he found his way back to symphonic writing through his close bond with Shostakovich. Tippett, on the other hand, undertook instrumental pieces in between writing operas or major choral works, and with equal commitment: but invariably, he found this fask just as strenuous.

Using Beethoven as his main point of reference, Tippett made each of his piano sonatas, symphonies, concertos and string quartets the vehicle for archetypally profound experiences. Although his main aim for many years was to write a really successful classical sonata-allegro and the first movement of Symphony No. 2 is probably the best of its type - subsequently, he became pre-occupied with maintaining cohesion in symphonic structures whose contents were utterly diverse. Once, in Symphony No. 3 (1970-2), this meant introducing a dramatic vocal ingredient, but in Symphony No. 4 (1976-7), he showed himself perfectly capable (having learnt from Elgar's Falstaff) of assembling a single-movement design, using standard sonata components for the main outline and pre-classical diversions and commentaries for the subsections.

From the point of those caught up in the modernist ferment of post-Webern composition emanating from Darmstadt and Cologne in the late 40s and 50s, the tonally conceived music of Britten and Tippett might well seem jejune and simplistic. Yet there is no lack of radicalism in their synthesis of multifarious formal and stylistic ingredients. Britten's radicalism was instinctive - deceptively lucid in its manifestations; Tippett's more self-conscious but still not systematic enough for the continental mind. Yet the semiotic richness of their work, welcoming complexity and contradiction, has survived all the dogmas and cul-de-sacs of modernism: indeed, if anything, they are more likely these days to be labelled "post-modern" (not that labels meant anything to them).

But the one characteristic that unites them as artists is their unique ability to transmit a sense of the age in which they have lived, to formulate musical messages that speak not just for themselves but for mankind in general. One could spend time excavating from within their works evidence of particular personal quirks or traumas. But the loss of an idyllic childhood world, in Britten's case, and the lack of a warm family upbringing, in Tippett's - quite significant factors in their psychologically formative years produced torments that were to be ultimately absorbed within an anguished vision of the twentieth century world. Both perceived in the First World War the true climacteric of the modern period: and out of that perception an acute 8ense of irony crystallised, which came to haunt all their important work.

This ironic strain helped them surpass all previous attempts by British composers to make important creative statements regarding the plight of human beings in a strife-torn epoch. Thus, John Foulds's A World Requiem (1923) - written to commemorate the dead of World War I - and Bliss's aforementioned Morning Heroes - to take but a few examples - hardly bear comparison with the achievements of Britten's War Requiem, Tippett's A Child of Our Time and The Mask of Time. Britten was a convinced, practising Christian. Yet in his War Requiem he aimed to intensify the anguish of the Latin Requiem Mass and attain a chilling ironic commentary by integrating settings of Wilfred Owen's war poetry. A single instance will suffice: cutting into the gently swaying final lines of the Offertorium (sung by boys' voices) is Owen's bitter extension into modern times of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac: "And half the seed of Europe one by one."

Tippett remains an agnostic. Not for him the total faith in Marxism of Alan Bush, let alone the complete acceptance of Catholicism of Messiaen. He regards himself as "a poet in a barren age", an age in which he has to defend the values of art against the over-valuation of technology. The Mask of Time is as much a testament of doubt and scepticism as it is a documentation of human evolution and aspiration. Again, one instance of irony in the work wili suffice: the seventh movement effects a swift and frightening reversal from the triumphant celebratory fanfares of its second chorale prelude, heralding the rise of modern science and the splitting of the atom, to the percussive dance of death and brass explosions symbolising the horrific perversion of science in atomic warfare. And just as Britten, at the climax of his Dies Irae can introduce an unforgettable note of compassion with the soprano soio setting of the Lachrymosa, so Tippett, here, at the climax of his composition, offers a searing soprano setting of Akhmatova: examples of these composers at their most humanely, plangently expressive.

Another dimension to their work which resulted in their acquiring a worldwide following (Tippett much later than Britten, however) is their ability to stir apprehensions of renewal and regeneration. Without descending into blandness or superficial optimism, they offer hope. The roots of this lie in an intuition as to the fuil scope of their compositional endeavours - once summed up by Tippett in a memorable essay published in Moving into Aquarius: "... I know that my true too violent. Images of reconciliation for a world torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty." That is as much the message of Britten's Spring Symphony (1949) as it is of the wordless concluding movement of The Mask of Time, with its exalted tone cued in by a line from Siegfried Sassoon: "The singing will never be done."

Meirion Bowen 1986