This month’s Composer of the Month is Sir Michael Tippett, a major figure in 20th-century British music. We’ve delved into the BBC Music Magazine archives, and dug up some interviews with composers and musicians who met and worked with Tippett over the years.
Alexander Goehr, composer
The son of Walter Goehr, Alexander conducted many Tippett first performances in the 1940s. Like Hopkins, he was encouraged by Tippett, whom he knew as a boy.
‘Tippett supported me in my ambition to be a composer, whereas my father did not. My father believed that you should do what you can do, whereas Tippett said it was quite unimportant what I could or could not do, the important thing was whether I wanted to do it. He argued a lot with my father in support of me, and gave me lots of encouragement. He gave me books to read and told me things to look at, so I owe him a great deal.’
Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer
Turnage received advice and encouragement from Tippett early in his career.
‘I was scared stiff when I first met Tippett: I hadn’t met many famous composers before. But he was always incredibly kind to me, very encouraging, very unpretentious. I’ve been influenced hugely by him: by the magical element in his music, and by its tremendous optimism, even in such a dark age. I think that’s made my own music go less dark than it might have done. There’s incredible humanity in his music, not just his pacifism.’
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, composer
Davies knew Tippett for many years.
‘For composers like me, Birtwistle and Sandy Goehr, Tippett was a wonderful example of somebody who was totally himself, which took a great deal of musical courage. He never did anything to ingratiate himself with musicians or the public, and he wasn’t popular or fashionable until late in his career. Right from his early lyrical pieces such as the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, to the later experiments with form, he showed an extraordinary tenacity in exploring musical and also philosophical ideas. Always he remained the essential Michael Tippett.’
Steve Martland, composer
Martland, a friend of Tippett, was influenced by his ideas about music and society.
‘What I got from him was confirmation of the idea that an artist can have something to say about the wider issues in society. Art can have a metaphorical purpose; it can express empathy with those who are outside society. His conscience about moral and humanitarian issues, issues in the world that affect individuals, are implicit and explicit in A Child of Our Time. Perhaps his great statement is the Third Symphony, in which the last word is ‘love’. There’s a great richness in the sound of his music, a huge generosity, and that was his personality too.’
Oliver Knussen, composer and conductor
Knussen has conducted several of Tippett’s works in the UK and abroad.
‘I was completely entranced by the opening of the Ritual Dances when I heard them as a youngster, and I was also very struck by the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra in Edinburgh in 1963. I like to think that traces of those early impressions are still in my music today. Tippett has a very acute sense of form, but nevertheless he risks everything on the sheer force and immediacy of his musical ideas, which are carried through with utter conviction come what may, and at his best that’s pretty irresistible. His boldness and independence of any orthodoxy was a vital balancing element of the musical eco-system into which my generation grew up.’
David Atherton, conductor
Atherton has performed and recorded many of Tippett’s major stage and concert works.
‘His music certainly has its own individual style, and as a person he always spoke his mind, not in an abrasive way but without compromise. That’s something I think I’ve learned from the music and from working with him, to be your own person. His operas, apart from King Priam, don’t have a traditional shape. He introduces characters, he develops them, but in the third act instead of tidying things up he asks more and more questions: questions about the meaning of life, about how we relate to one another as individuals. There’s a lesson in that too. As performers, for example, even if we’re doing a classical piece for the 100th time, we should never be satisfied: we must always keep on asking questions.’
James Watson, trumpeter and conductor
Watson was a member of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s, when Tippett regularly conducted it.
‘I always think of him with great fondness. I joined the orchestra from a coal-mining family and from the world of brass bands, with the idea that orchestras were for middleclass kids. This great man turned up and knocked down the barriers I thought existed. He was so generous, so kind, with a fantastic sense of humour; he was already in his 60s, but he was like one of us. He had a real effect on my career, not only with practical help later, but also because he gave us the idea that anything was attainable.’
Robert Tear, tenor
Tear sang leading tenor roles in many of Tippett’s works, including the premieres of The Knot Garden and The Mask of Time.
‘He was one of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with. If you were brought up as I was to admire Blake, George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, then you could recognise Michael as belonging to the same Romantic, transcendental tradition. The Mask of Time I think is a huge masterpiece, big and bony: it always reminds me of Beethoven. His operas liberate the mind, for those who want to be liberated, and I think there’ll always be enough such people for them to live. He had a great vision of love and never departed from it.’
Peter Cropper, the first violinist of The Lindsays
The Fourth and Fifth String Quartets were written specifically for The Lindsays. Cropper recorded all of Tippett’s five string quartets under his supervision.
‘He knew exactly what he wanted, even when he couldn’t write it down. There were specific things he was very helpful on which can equally well be applied to other music, and which I try to pass on to the next generation of performers. One of the greatest moments in my life was when we went to play through his Fifth Quartet to him: he was clearly re-living it from bar to bar, and you could tell from his face exactly how it should go. Can you imagine having the chance to do that with Beethoven?’
Sir Peter Hall, director
Hall directed the premieres of Tippett’s operas The Knot Garden and New Year.
‘I love Tippett’s operas for their combination of very dry humour and a heart-stopping lyricism; and for the fact that he was writing operas about now, and contemporary operas in that sense are rare. He was essentially a theatre composer, with a sense of ‘stage time’ and I think his words are much better than they’re given credit for. They have a dry, epigrammatic quality which comes from TS Eliot, who was a great influence on him. I associate working with him with my experiences with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter: with all three, if you asked “What does this mean?”, the reply would simply be “What does it say?” The operas will last and become more appreciated.’
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
Davis conducted many premieres and important revivals of Tippett’s opera and concert works.
‘He was a very attractive character, extremely lively, committed, amusing, interesting, very quick-witted. The nice thing about working with him was that he left you alone to do it, he didn’t stick his head over your shoulder all the time. I found meeting him was always very stimulating: ideas would fly around. Without Michael’s tremendous personality to turn people on to his music, it may not catch on as it should. With all those notes, all that energy, it needs sympathetic interpretation: it shouldn’t be conducted by people who don’t like it.’
The above interviews were featured in the February 2005 issue of BBC Music Magazine.