World Statesman of Music


Those words were spoken by the lead singer of the rock group Dire Straits at the widely broadcast 1988 concert in support of Nelson Mandela at Wembley Stadium. London. They struck a chord with one particular listener, British composer Sir Michael Tippett.

At the time Tippett was close to finishing his fifth opera, New Year. His plot featured six characters - three from what Tippett calls Somewhere Today, and three from a utopian fantasy world of the future, Nowhere Tomorrow. All are seeking to realize their personal dreams and aspirations.

Prompted by what he had heard and seen on television, Tippett now felt that the opera must incorporate something of his own aspirations as an artist with deep humanitarian convictions. He therefore modified the ending so that the final lines spoken by the Presenter (a kind of Brechtian commentator on the action) were those Tippett had heard declaimed to a vast audience worldwide:

"One humanity; one justice." (Premièred at the Houston Grand Opera in Texas last October, ´New Year´ is due to be seen at Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival in July, followed by a film version on BBC television.)

The serious side to Tippett as an artist and public figure does not make him aloof or cool with people at large. Quite the opposite, he has become known worldwide as an irreverent, charismatic character, happier dressed in T-shirt and sneakers than in a tuxedo, equally at home talking with dukes and hippies, and indulging a plethora of tastes (he loves marmalade and Tex-Mex food) and eccentricities (he rarely wears socks).

In his composing he early on rejected Schoenbergian 12-tone methods as ´alphabetic´, preferring an empirical approach redolent of Debussy, on the one hand, and Charles Ives, on the other, receiving, polarizing, and synthesizing a diversity of influences. Late Beethoven, Elizabethan madrigals, Purcell, jazz, and blues all affect his music, whose language vibrates with rhythmic energy and contrapuntal tensions.

In recent years, Tippett has come to value Gershwin very highly: “In an age of percussiveness and experiments with disintegrating textures and rhythmic complexity,” he told me, “Gershwin kept melody alive.” In Tippett’s own music, melodic invention is of paramount importance.

Tippett quickly found it necessary to compose at the piano. so as to have continuous contact with the living phenomenon of sound. He conjures up an aura of pianistic sonority, rather than playing in any straightforward manner, and this enables him to imagine the timbres and textures he needs.

All his compositions are pre-planned, sometimes over many years. T. S. Eliot (who acted as friend and artistic mentor) told him once that, in writing poetry “the words come last.” Similarly, witb Tippett. ~the notes come last.”

When Tippett gets to the notes, he works straight into full score, and is so confident that he will send a piece section by section to his publishers for immediate printing; and no revisions are needed. The daily routine of working at the piano all morning, walking after lunch in the countryside near his Wiltshire home (a modern, Americanstyle house in an enclave iii the middle of a farm), reading, and watching TV iii the evening, is one he has followed for nearly sixty years. It forms the core of an essentially solitary existence.

An acute sensitivity to outside stimuli and an ability to seize upon those things that are specifically relevant to his own work are among the factors that have enabled Tippett - this year celebrating his 85th birthday - to stay creatively vital and innovative. While many composers at a comparable age either write no more music or rearrange bits of juvenilia, Tippett remains imaginatively alive and fertile, surprising both performers and audiences by the scale and scope of his recent compositions.

Many listeners considered that, in his huge, evening-long work "The Mask of Time" (premièred in 1984 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis), Tippett had produced a final synthesis of his ideas about the world and of his idiosyncratic musical language. But ´New Year,´ begun late in 1985 when he was 80, and finished three years later opened up fresh avenues. Its stage-conception combined the fantasy world of film sci-fi with the dance-orientation of Broadway musicals, and its score was also colored by the musical, with saxophones, electric guitars, percussion, and electronic ingredients, reggae and rock styles prominent throughout.

Tippett’s most recently completed work, a setting of W. B. Yeats’s poem "Byzantium" jointly commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and Carnegie Hall (in celebration of its centenary), and due to receive its première in April 1991 - is likely to arouse further wonderment. For Tippett appears always to have heeded the advice of Ezra Pound: "Make it new"

Tippett is responsive to a wide range of music —whether it be composed or improvised. He is often excited by the briefest snatches of music caught from the soundtracks of TV plays or films. An odd instance, recently, was the whistling of the theme-tune at the end of the soap “East Enders”: This Tippett emulated at one point in “New Year.” Despite poor eyesight (his central vision deteriorated twenty years ago) Tippett continues to read as voraciously as during his youth, when (among other literary epics) he devoured Frazer’s “Golden Bough” and Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and taught himself German in order to read Goethe complete. His tastes extend from detective thrillers to biographies, to novels by Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, Michel Tournier, and others, to the latest speculative tracts on the building of Stonehenge.

Travel is another delight of Tippett’s later years. Although until he was sixty he journeyed only within Europe, since then he has undertaken world tours and made forays into places such as Mexico or eastern Thrkey—trips that people a third of his age might have found taxing. In his sixties, when he came to the United States for the first time, his personal discovery of the mesas and canyons of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico proved something of a spiritual watershed, and he returned there several times. The development of that cosmic awareness fundamental to “The Mask of Time”—that contemporary extension of our notions of time and space—is something Tippett owes jointly to his travels in the Far West and to television programs such as Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man.”

Above all, Tippett remains sensitive to people, to social and political events. And while, as a composer, he has always lived an isolated life out in the English countryside, he feels that his art must have some relation with what is happening in the world at large. Jo-Ann, the main character of “New Year,” for example, was suggested te him by an interview in The Guardian with a young woman who had been born in Belfast and who “wanted out” of that Terror Town (as Tippett called his own operatic city).

Tippett has always been known as a committed left-winger. In the 1930s he was briefly a member of the Communist Party— but he quickly resigned his membership when he failed to convert his party branch to Trotskyism. His socialist leanings remain deep-seated, stemming partly from his mother (who was an early member of the British Labour Party and endured imprisonment as a suffragette), but mainly from his own observation of the effects of World War I and of the Depression.

Tippett became one of the leading figures in the peace movement in Britain. For refusing both conscription and the alternatives to serving in the armed forces, he was incarcerated for three months, in 1943, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London. He later became president of the Peace Pledge Union and of the Bath section of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

In the wake of Soviet official Andrei Zhdanov’s notorious 1948 decree on the arts in Soviet Russia, Tippett was invited to New York in order to ask the leading Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich public questions about his attitude to the decree.

Tippett knew this would place Shostakovich in an impossible position —he was bound to support the decree and appear as a political coward— so Tippett sald he would ask only questions that would show he understood the meaning of Siberia. The invitation was rescinded.

Another invitation came in 1968 following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovaina, this time te be guest of honor at a Moscow meeting of the Congress of Soviet Composers. Again, Tippett sensed that to go would have been to show support for the invasion, so he refused: Sure enough, Soviet leaders Kosygin and Brezhnev attended the opening plenum, which began with Shostakovich reading a special resolution of thanks to the Red Army for its heroic deeds.

The new era that has dawned with Mikhail Gorbachev has produced a climate in which Tippett is ready to visit the Soviet Union for the first time. Already a younger generation of musicians there is performing his work.

Not that his strictures have been directed exclusively at the Soviet bloc. Equally when President Jimmy Carter announced that the US would go ahead with the manufacture of the neutron bomb - a bomb designed te kill people but leave buildings intact - Tippett was impelled to speak out in public and did so at a major peace rally in London’s Trafalgar Square. Again, when Britain embarked on a war in the Falklands, Tippett was particularly appalled at the way the British Labour Party meekly supported the Conservative government’s attitude on the affair.

There are three main strands in Tippett’s thinking on all these matters (as expressed in many articles and broadcasts, such as those published in two collections, “Moving into Aquarius” and “Music of the Angels”), and they are essentially apolitical.

One is the observation that with so much of the world’s resources being poured into technology and particularly defense, the artist has a special duty to communicate other, humanely based values. Tippett put it thus in a memorable passage of a TV program, “Poets in a Barren Age”:

"I know that my true function within a society that embraces all of us is to continue an age-old tradition, fundamental to our civilization, which goes back into pm-history and will go forward into the unknown future. This tradition is to create images from the depths of the imagination and to give them form whether visual, intellectual, or musical. For it is only through images that the inner world communicates at all. Images of the past, shapes of the future. Images of vigor for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty."

That is what motivated Tippett’s determination not to go to war in the 1 940s. He was not merely against entering into battle or doing alternative noncombatant duties, he felt that his musical work matfèred as the most positive contribution to society he could make.

A second element is his belief that individuals are more important than ideologies; and, in the world at large, governments constantly belittle or overlook the consequences of their actions for individuals. The carving up of Europe after the First and Second World Wars, for instance, was done with little reference to the people whose lives would be affected by the new frontiers.

In wars and revolutions, also, it is the innocents who suffer, and Tippett has throughout his career as a composer brought such victims into the foreground of his work.

His most widely performed composition, the oratorio “A Child of Our Time, celebrated one such antihero: for it was sparked off by the Nazi pogrom of the Jews, the infamous Kristalinacht of I938, after a young Jew, Grynsban, had shot a German diplomat in Paris. But while Tippett’s oratorio refers to the specific incident, its scope is wider, referring to all scapegoats in all places and historical periods.

The reason “A Child of Our Time” has been taken into the repertory of musical organizations worldwide is that it can be interpreted from many points of view. In Tokyo it has been understood 3s in part a commemoration of the victims of Hiroshima; in Atlanta, Georgia—when Tippett conducted it there nine years ago—many felt it was about the many black martyrs in the South; indeed it has been performed more than once in commemoration of Martin Luther King. “A Child of Our Time” has acquired a life of its own far removed from its origins: And that is strength.

Again, in “The Mask of Time,” having followed Bronowski to some extent in depicting the “ascent of man” and the rise of science, Tippett steps back from this canvas of world history to provide a personal threnody—the keening of a woman’s voice—for all those who have been the victims of brutality. Here Tippett found a kindred spirit in the Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova, whose “Poem Without a Hero” and “Requiem” he adapted in composing this section of the work. In this way, he sought to give the piece a universal dimension.

Third, Tippett stresses the need for self-knowledge. In a world of ideologically based self-righteousness, evil is always being projected onto the other party—be it individuals, generations, families, races, or whole societies: Indeed, for Tippett, this has been the basis of the cold war. If Western leaders like to base their foreign policy on the fiction that everyone in the Soviet bloc is evil, and the communist leadership equally blames the wicked world of capitalism, artists must teach otherwise —the need to examine the darker aspects of one’s own society. At the end of “A Child of Our Time,” the soloists (and eventually the chorus) sing a Junginspired couplet, which perhaps is the motto of all Tippett’s work: “I would know my shadow and my light, / So shall at last be made whole.”

Many of the characters in Tippett’s operas are searching for illumination about their unknown, unexpressed, unfulfilled “darker” selves. The outcome of their search is sometimes joyful and clearly optimistic. At the end of his first opera, “The Midsummer Marriage,” the chorus sings lines from Yeats: “All things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay.”

This gaiety—rare in 20th-century opera and certainly a feature that accounted for the success of “The Midsummer Marriage” in its US première at San Francisco in 1983—can be found in a later opera like “The Ice Break” (Tippett’s fourth, due to be recorded after a concert performance in London on July 23). Late in Act 3, the young Psychedelic Trippers race through a hospital, where a successful operation has been performed upon Yuri, émigré son of a Russian writer. They sing lines from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: “Spring come you at the farthest, / In the very end of harvest.”

In both cases, the choruses could be a metaphor for the young people who danced on the Berlin Wall when it was opened up last November. Nevertheless, the outcome of this quest for self-knowledge can sometimes be quite bleak.

At the end of “The Ice Break,” Yuri is reconciled with his father, Lev. The latter, quoting a similar episode in Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meistei” says: “Yet you will always be brought forth again, / glorious image of God, / and likewise be maimed, wounded afresh, / from within and without.”

Tippett is a realist. He is never bland. And he especially discounts any notion of himself as a guru or saint, which an artist so ready to engage with and make pronouncements on the major issues of the day can easily be turned into by adulatory admirers. His position is ironically echoed in the response of the androgynous messenger-figure, Astron-Astra, from whom the Psychedelic Trippers in “The Ice Break” seek advice: “Saviour?! Hero?!! Me!! / You must be joking!”

But if Tippett can sympathize with the oppressed and mourn the dead, he can always celebrate with those who survive. In “The Mask of Time,” while the individual human beings here and now (represented by the four soloists) and the inexorable, unstoppable, eternal world (represented by the chorus) are polarized most of the way through, by the end they are united in wordless singing. Thus Tippett enables his listeners to share in a vision of hope and exultation.

Tippett’s developing social and political awareness in the late 1 920s and early 1 930s, at the time when he was beginning to discover his own “voice” as a composer, led him instinctively to steer clear of the fads, fashions, schools, and coteries among his musical contemporaries. He walked alone, a maverick; and he continues to do so.

His extramusical involvements at that time—conducting an orchestra he had formed from musicians thrown out of work when talkies arrived in the cinema, writing music for Labour Party rallies, organizing benefit concerts at Morley College and elsewhere, directing children’s choirs and operatic groups— gave him a sense of mission: a desire that whatever he did as an artist, whether it be writing “pure” music such as string quartets and concertos, or dramatic works with a “message,” it would all “have a direct relation to the compassion that was so deep in my own heart.”

It has become a cliché to call Tippett “A Child of His Time,” but “A Child Ahead of His Time” would serve quite well. “My greatest ambition now,” he said recently, “is to see in the new millennium—a new age of peace, perhaps, and greater humanity.” No doubt he will.

Programme note on Tippett's Triple Concerto: reprinted in The BBC Proms Pocket Guide to Great Concertos (ed. Nicholas Kenyon), Faber 2003, pp. 279-282