Music: Michael Tippett—A Child of His Time

Twentieth-century music does not get much better than Michael Tippett (1905-1998) in full flower, lending some credence to his advocates’ claim that, in his later years, he was the greatest living British composer. Yet that reputation rested on compositions that came from his first period of work that featured an extraordinary outpouring of luminous, highly lyrical music of multiple epiphanies. The stream of inspiration from which they came seems to have dried up long before his demise at the age of 93. The works of his mid to late periods were thorny, highly complex, disjunct, and somewhat inscrutable until, at the end, he reverted to his earlier style. Nevertheless, Tippet remains a major figure in Britain’s musical renaissance, and his early works are not to be missed.

When I first encountered Tippett’s music several decades ago, I was entranced by its rhythmic vivacity, melodic wealth, and contrapuntal richness. Chords exuberantly leap about trying to find a melody to ride. A profusion of melodic curlicues spin around in their excitement. And pounding propulsive rhythms suddenly break into dance or are suspended for lyrical interludes of flute duets or delicate harp arpeggios. The attraction was immediate, the style of the works inimitable, and the memory they made indelible.

I particularly appreciated Tippett in the context of a time that was producing sterile, hermetic music modeled on Arnold Schoenberg’s gospel of systematized dissonance. Here was someone writing symphonies, concertos, and fantasias that, while sounding fresh, were deeply rooted in tradition. In short, Tippet was a master of tonal conflict and resolution who reinvigorated the sonata allegro form. I wanted more. I patiently, anxiously followed Tippett’s progress, only to be puzzled by the way in which he seemed to get bogged down in a hermeticism of his own making through which he thought he could confront the most vital issues of the day.

Having learned a great deal more about Tippett since then, I am now amazed that he was able to accomplish what he did. Tippett came to music relatively late. He was raised by his suffragette mother and liberal lawyer father in a household where there was no music. After his first experience, as a teenager, of hearing an orchestra perform, he announced to his befuddled parents that he was going to be a composer. He studied at the Royal College of Music but did not publish anything until he was in his mid-30s. His intellectual pedigree was Trotskyist and, then, pacifist; his sexual orientation highly confused. In 1935, he joined the Communist party in hopes of converting his brethren to Trotsky’s doctrines. He registered as a conscientious objector during World War II and, as a result, spent several months in prison. He was deeply affected by his experience of undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis.

Tippett was saved from a permanent career as a social agitator by his belated encounter with music, first Beethoven’s, then that of the 16th-century English madrigalists, and then Purcell’s. This encounter seems to have immunized him from further infatuation with totalitarian ideology, though it did not protect him from the snares of Carl Jung’s Manichean worldview or endow him with a coherent way of thinking. However, it did embed in him a permanent sense of mission. “Deep within me,” he wrote, “I know that part of the artist’s job is to renew our sense of the comely and the beautiful.” He spoke of his obligation to provide “images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty.” Aside from the above-mentioned influences, Igor Stravinsky, particularly in his neo-classic period, had a major impact on Tippett. Among his British contemporaries, the only other one who got as contrapuntally carried away as Tippett was Edmund Rubbra, who also drew on the same 16th-century heritage.

The first work that brought Tippet to prominence, A Child of Our Time, is emblematic of his musical strengths but also of the weakness of his spiritual perspective that wrought damage further on in his career. The piece, an oratorio, deals with the problem of good and evil. It is based on a real incident in 1938, when a young Polish Jew, angered at his parents’ suffering, assassinated a minor Nazi official in Paris. Nazi retaliation against the Jews in Germany was severe.

Harkening back to Bach and Handel for his foundations, Tippett substituted Negro spirituals for the traditional Lutheran chorales. Musically, this works well enough. However, Tippett’s attempt to universalize the Jewish plight with the obvious implication that Negro suffering was somehow equivalent was not well received by some Jews, nor was the libretto’s morally ambiguous assertion that the young Jewish boy was simply striking at his own darker half in shooting the Nazi diplomat. One must wonder how deeply Tippett saw into the evil of Nazi ideology if he at the same time refused to oppose it by arms.

Key to the Jungian conception of A Child of Our Time, and to Tippett’s whole worldview, is its penultimate text, which is sung by both soloists and chorus: “I would know my shadow and my light, So shall I at last be made whole.” Or as Tippett put in his notes, he was concerned with “the possible healing that would come from Man’s acceptance of his Shadow in relation to his Light.” What might serve as the source of this wholeness? Before closing with another explicitly Christian Negro spiritual, Tippett’s text states: “The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring.”

This vague, Nature-based hope is hardly an adequate answer. What makes the work satisfying is the closing spiritual’s invitation to journey to the “promised land” at “Jesus’s feet.” The only spring that has ever come that could resolve the problem of evil that Tippet raises is the “spring” of Christ in His resurrection. Reconciling the dark with the light is not ultimately a Jungian psychological or artistic enterprise. It is a salvific one, undertaken by Christ’s “reconciling the world to Himself.”

This truth has given and still gives inspiration to great artists. Tippett, an agnostic, rejected Christianity as a source, though he poached from it, as in this piece, for his own purposes. He said, “What I cannot do is go back into some tradition like Christianity and put something there which prevents that new metaphor being usable at all.” That new metaphor was what Tippett thought he could concoct from Jung’s psychoanalytical views that would somehow explain things—that is, the opposites of good and evil—at a greater depth than Christianity, Jung’s anima and animus, together at last. It did not work, and Tippett’s later works suffer from the spiritual confusion.

The works from Tippett’s golden period include the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, the Fantasia on a Theme of Handel, the Piano Concerto, and the first two of his four symphonies, plus his first several string quartets and, most especially, his radiant opera, The Midsummer Marriage. After these, his works became more astringent and even violent, as in the operas King Priam and The Knot Garden, the Concerto for Orchestra, and the Third Symphony. To show the dislocation in the world, he dislocated his music, while at the same time thinking that his abrasive juxtapositions of unlike things somehow brought them together.

This violence burned itself out in the late 1970s when Tippett seems to have remembered his vocation and announced that he was turning back, “with some pleasure, on the cruel world.” The result was an Indian summer of some lyrical regeneration that produced the Triple Concerto and the Fourth Symphony, and his last work, The Rose Lake, in 1993. While harkening back to his earlier lyrical style, these works, except for the last, retained some of the density and toughness from his middle period. I confess to liking them far more now than when I first encountered them.

Tippett was nothing if not ambitious in the issues he tried to deal with, but he did not have the theological framework within which to carry out his vision. He bogged down in the dualism of the light-and-shadow Manichean vision of reality that infected him from Jung. Finally, Tippett’s works do not adequately deal with the major issues he raises. What is surprising is not the disjunct music he wrote, but the beautiful music he produced. Tippett got some very fundamental things wrong, but he never went completely over the edge. He was always nudged back by his desire for beauty.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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