Let’s Talk About Michael Tippett

Sir Michael Tippett broke the mold in music and in life(Photo: guardian.org)
Sir Michael Tippett broke the mold in music and in life(Photo: guardian.org)

Some people live life carefully. They do everything they think is right. They fit in. They don’t make waves. Few composers embrace conformity, but all of the non-conforming musicmeisters out  there was Michael Tippett and everybody else.

Forget Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Donizetti and many others carried off by pleasure and pain diseases. I’ve always said that penicillin was a great gift to music. Back in the days of no public health, most people succumbed to pleasure-related illnesses. Sometimes they went mad first (Wolf, Donizetti, Schumann) making their bios fatter.

Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was spared such indignity, but I doubt her would have minded. Tippett was an iconoclast. He was openly gay. He was a pacifist. He lived and died broke. He wrote the music he wanted to write. Thankfully, more people loved his work than not. In the 1950s and 60s,  a Tippett  premiere was a a huge cultural event in the U.K.  There are symphonies, concerti, a wonderful piece called Fantasia on a Theme by Corelli. Back when Prince Charles was noted without Diana or Camilla-or whomever-he had a birthday ode written for him by Michael Tippett.

Tippet’s operas include The Midsummer Marriage. At its premiere in London in 1955, Joan Sutherland, not yet Dame Joan, claimed to understand nothing of the score and did  ”not know why my face had to be painted blue.” I was thrilled by the opera King Priam, heard in concert in New York long ago. Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Co. of Boston presented Tippett’s look at the 60s, with anti Vietnam war screed as peace signs, The Ice Break. That was me in the chorus with a white afro and bell bottoms. The music was great. A Mask of Time was written for the Boston Symphony in 1978. The composer attended the first performance. He had been ill, but came on stage to a roar from the audience, on the arm of conductor Colin Davis.

 Child of Our Time was first performed in 1944. The composer had just been released from prison, as a conscientious objector during WWII. He was allowed to serve in the ambulance corps and wrote this profound work in his spare time. A Child of Out Time was supposed to have a text by T.S. Eliot. Tippett eventually wrote the text himself. The incorporation of African-American spirituals is woven so tightly and so beautifully that Tippett’s own music is complemented and nothing is over shadowed. The composer said later that A Child of Our Time was a response to Kristallnacht.

We need to hear more of Tippett’s music. We need to hear the symphonies. King Priam and The Midsummer Marriage should be produced in the States. I’d like to hear the Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1963 to honor Benjamin Britten’s 50th birthday. A Child of Our Time  offer a powerful catharsis, and great tunes whenever it is performed. Mozart overshadowed Haydn. Britten began to overshadow Tippett. Now, years after their deaths, both composers have become ‘classics’. It’s about time.

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