Michael Tippett was, along with Benjamin Britten, one of the two great modern English composers of the post-war period. Not only did he compose some excellent operas, oratorios and symphonies, he was a man with political interests and social concerns.
He was born in 1905 to parents who had liberal and radical ideas. His mother was a novelist, a Labour Party member, and a suffragette who was imprisoned for her agitation for women’s rights.
Tippett was excluded from his boarding school at the age of nine because he was persuading his fellow students of the non-existence of god.
At a very early age he became aware that his vocation was composing music and, amidst personal difficulty, he fought for his vocation. He also became fully aware and at ease with his homosexuality in his teens.
The experience of the economic depression of the 1930s had a profound impact on him and he became convinced music could be used to express his social convictions and the “compassion that was so deep in my heart”.
Tippett was persuaded to join the Communist Party in 1935. But his sympathies were much more with Trotskyism and he naively thought he could change the Communist Party from within. His membership was very brief and he then moved away from revolutionary politics towards pacifism.
He refused to fight in the Second World War and was jailed when he refused to abandon composing for duties deemed to be compatible with the war effort. Later he became president of the Peace Pledge Union and remained a pacifist until the end of his life in 1998.
Although he accepted a knighthood, he was strongly opposed to Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and welcomed the election of Labour in 1997.
It is for his music that he will be remembered. Although less well known than Britten, Tippett’s operatic output was in many ways more musically varied and politically challenging.
His first work of note was Child of Our Time. It was inspired by the story of Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of a German diplomat in Paris was used as the excuse for Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom against Jews across Germany in 1938.
This, his best known work, is a fantastic piece of music. It was recently performed in memory of the Holocaust and in aid of the tsunami appeal. The work stands in the best traditions of English choral composition but also incorporates Negro spirituals as the voice of the oppressed and the outsider.
Tippett approached the poet TS Eliot to write the words, known as the libretto, of Child of Our Time. Eliot persuaded Tippett to write his own. Tippett went on to write the librettos of his five operas, Midsummer Marriage, King Priam, The Knot Garden, The Ice Break and New Year.
He continually experimented in his musical style in all of these. His librettos betray his fascination with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and the realms of dream and the imagination, as well as socio-political themes.
In The Knot Garden he examines the issues of a lifeless marriage, racism, bisexuality, homosexuality and the torture of political prisoners. In The Ice Break he explores the reconciliation of East and West, of black and white.
Tippett continues to have his conservative detractors. The music critic Norman Lebrecht, in a philistine review, recently derided the lack of audiences for Tippett’s work. But it is not true. Audiences continue to turn up in large number to hear his oratorios and operas and celebrate them.
Tippett’s work is very accessible and some of it is extremely lyrical and beautiful. It would be well worth the effort, wherever you are, to catch some in this his centenary year. He is one of us.
For information about upcoming performances go to www.michael-tippett.com