Michael Kemp Tippett

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Michael Kemp Tippett

Although the compositions of Sir Michael Kemp Tippett (born 1905) are not frequently performed, he is considered one of England's most important composers.

Michael Tippett was born in London on Jan. 2, 1905, and was attracted to music at an early age. His formal training was at the Royal College of Music, after which he taught school for a few years. He resigned to devote all of his time to composition and moved to a small village, where he worked steadily for several years. Later he destroyed all these early attempts and went back to the Royal College for further study.

Tippett then became musical director of Morley College in London, a college for working men and women, a position he held during the war years when London was under repeated attacks. He became known to the musical world as a skilled choral conductor with a contagious enthusiasm for music. A pacifist with firm convictions, he was jailed for three months in 1943, when he refused to accept the duties assigned him as a conscientious objector, holding that his musical activities were more important.

The cantata A Child of Our Time (1939; first performance 1944), written in protest over the fierce Nazi pogroms, reflects Tippett's strong feelings about the inhumanity of war. The work includes several black spirituals which are used as symbols of all persecuted peoples, giving the cantata broad significance. Following the end of World War II, the cantata was performed in several European countries that had been occupied by the Germans.

Tippett resigned from Morley College in 1951 and devoted himself to composition and to occasional appearances on the BBC radio and television. He was awarded several honorary doctorates, named commander of the Order of the British Empire, and was knighted in 1966. In the same year, he was composer-in-residence at the Aspen Festival.

Tippett's main early instrumental works are Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1940), Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953), and Concerto for Orchestra (1963). These works tend to classify him as a neoclassic composer insofar as he employs baroque contrapuntal textures and intricate rhythms. His operas show a more subjective side of his musical personality. The Midsummer Marriage (1955) is ritualistic and symbolic, a kind of 20th-century Magic Flute in its mixture of high seriousness and comedy. Later operas are King Priam (1962) and The Knot Garden (1970), with a psychoanalytic theme. He also composed several choral works and songs.

It is difficult to categorize Tippett's music, because it follows none of the well-publicized avant-garde trends, but neither is it old-fashioned or reactionary. His style is a highly individual one, based on medieval polyphony, madrigal techniques, baroque textures, and 20th-century rhythms and harmonies.

Tippett unveiled a new work, Symphony No. 3 for soprano and orchestra, in 1972. The London Symphony Orchestra commissioned it, with a text by the composer. It consisted of two parts: the first entirely instrumental, followed by a soprano in sequence with four blues parts. Symphony No. 3 made its U.S. debut in 1974. That same year, Tippett made a two-month tour of the U.S., appearing as the conductor in Chicago during the performance of Symphony No. 3. He later appeared at the U.S. premiere of the opera The Knot Garden in Evanston, IL, and at a performance of his Double Concerto by the New York Philharmonic.

The composer conducted a lecture tour in the U.S. in 1976, and the next year attended the world premiere of his Symphony No. 4, commissioned and performed by the Chicago Symphony. That year also marked the debut of his fourth opera, The Ice Break, Tippett's first opera in a contemporary setting. The drama focused on family problems, racial tensions, and the drug scene. At one point in the opera, there is a confrontation between two rival gangs, one led by a jazz clarinetist, and the other by a classical violinist. The Ice Break made its U.S. debut in Boston in 1979.

Tippett celebrated his 75th birthday with the world premiere of String Quartet No. 4 in January 1980. It was just one of many extensive performances in Great Britain and elsewhere celebrating Tippett's milestone. Later that year, Tippett wrote Triple Concerto, for violin, viola, cello and orchestra, which was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Tippett celebrated his 80th birthday with a two-week tour of Texas in January, 1985. The Houston Symphony performed several of his best works, and Tippett conducted two of the pieces, despite suffering from blindness in his right eye. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed the U.S. premiere of Words for Music Perhaps, which was actually written 25 years prior. This piece combined chamber music with a narrator reading text and poems. Following Dallas, Tippett went to Los Angeles for the world premiere of his Fourth Piano Sonata, then on to England for a series of events commemorating his birthday.

Tippett wrote his fifth opera, New Year, which made its world premiere in Houston in 1989. Like his previous works, it was quite eccentric, providing wild imagery with emotional music. Tippett had previously stated he would write no more operas, but said New Year insisted on being composed. It made its European debut at Glyndebourne in July 1990. The following year, Tippett unveiled Byzantium, a setting for soprano and orchestra over the Yeats poem. It was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and Carnegie Hall, each celebrating their 100th year.

At the age of 90, Tippett was still composing music. In 1995, the London Symphony Orchestra gave the first public performance of The Rose Lake, which Tippett called a "song without words." The orchestra devoted much of its concert season to music by Tippett in honor of his birthday. His rich but idiosyncratic scores continued to gain the recognition they so deserved.

Further Reading

Selected writings and broadcast talks of Tippett were published as Moving into Aquarius (1959). A collection of essays on various aspects of Tippett's music is Ian Kemp, ed., Michael Tippett: A Symposium on His Sixtieth Birthday (1965). Also, read Arnold Whittall's The Music of Britten and Tippett: Studies on Themes and Techniques (1982), which details the writings of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. □

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