Tippett’s secret involvement with the violent Trotskyist left wing

Oliver Soden, Michael Tippett’s recent biographer, reveals the famous pacifist’s long-hidden past

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Who was Tippett?

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What a complex man Michael Tippett was to bring to life, a person of infinite variety. Most who can remember him today speak of the vivid, slightly cultivated persona that he showed to the public, one of risqué jokes and frequent giggles, calling everyone ‘love’ and turning up to first-night parties in pink trainers. He achieved a mainstream celebrity unusual for composers, appearing, in his eighties, on Terry Wogan’s chat show alongside George Michael, wearing a cowboy hat and seeming more comfortably ‘out’ than Wham’s lead singer.

One challenge in writing Tippett’s biography was to dig beneath the entertaining anecdotes about this Grand Old Man of British Music (who seemed neither Grand, Old, nor markedly British), and find what sorrows and secrets were stowed away beneath his cheerfulness. The main events of his life were well known, not least the two months he spent in Wormwood Scrubs during World War II for refusing to comply with the terms of his exemption from military service. But much else was murky, and I became especially intrigued by his political activities in the 1930s, that decade of political division so often said to mirror our own.

Tippett lived many lives before settling down to composition. He wrote his first ‘official’ work when he was 30, and was not able to devote his time to composition until he was 46. Yet a recent airing of his Symphony in B flat (written when he was 28 and later withdrawn) revealed an ambitious and more-than-competent work, and his originality of mind and devotion to composition were apparent even when he was at school. Hardly the typical attributes of a late starter.

Involvement with the Communist Party

Like so many left-leaning artists of his generation, faced with the fall-out of the Great Depression and with the real and growing prospect of fascism, Tippett had been for a while a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. He soon found the aims of Marxism incompatible with the news coming from Russia of Stalin’s repression, and his views quickly settled themselves on the side of the exiled Leon Trotsky. While Stalin preached ‘Socialism in one country’ (the Soviet Union), Trotskyists were committed to perpetual and worldwide revolution.

Tippett’s correspondence of the time glitters with revolutionary fire, and an approval of needful insurrectionary violence. He was certain in his belief – typical for a Trotskyist of the day – that it was better to overturn the British Empire than the German dictatorship. ‘My one hope is that the British Empire will go under and Hitler win […]. I hate the Empire as I hate nothing else. It is the key pin of world capitalism and it’s our job to bring it to the ground.’

Trotskyism

But, says Ian Kemp’s official – and composer-approved – account of Tippett’s life, ‘he never joined a Trotskyist party and never got involved with sticky political in-fighting’. Neither statement is true. I had come across glancing references to Tippett’s having been a member of the Youth Militant Group, a Trotskyist party in the Labour Party that eventually numbered several hundred members nationally.

My research took me to the collections of left-wing political papers at the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University and at the Hull History Centre. I soon became cross-eyed at the pile of flimsy brown sheets, dense with thorny thickets of political acronym and Marxist commentary. And then, suddenly, there he was: ‘The fact that the Militant Group now have principled differences with the policy of our international organisation was admitted by Comrade James in a conversation with Comrades Harber and Tippet [sic], when he stated…’

Again and again I found him, misspelled and otherwise, mentioned as working at the very heart of the Youth Militant Group, his name bracketed with the Group’s leader, Denzil Harber, clearly senior enough to take part in discussions of policy at the highest level. Here he was travelling to southern France, to smuggle money over the border to help oppressed Trotskyists in the Spanish Civil War. Here was article after article in the Group’s magazine, usually under the title of ‘Notes of the Month, by MT’: ‘Lead the workers to take the offensive against Fascism with a workers’ militia!’

Eventually the Youth Militant Group was riven by ‘the Lee Affair’ in which a member, Ralph Lee, was falsely accused of stealing funds. Tippett was part of a faction that walked out in support of Lee; I discovered two long statements he delivered at national meetings, claiming that the trouble was preventing members from undertaking ‘the future illegal work of the rapidly approaching war’. Tippett became a founder member of a breakaway party, the Workers’ International League, signing his name to their manifesto alongside the infamous, and later disgraced, activist Gerry Healy – from whom, in later life, he may have wished to distance himself.

At one point it seems a bundle of letters written by Trotsky himself was sent mistakenly to Tippett’s bungalow in Surrey, an indication of his involvement, however peripheral, at the highest levels of the revolutionary left. And, just before the eruption of World War II, and as relations between Stalinists and Trotskyists grew from bad to worse, Tippett was warned by the British Trotskyists Secreteriat that the Russian Secret Police had his address under surveillance.

I found a letter from the mid-1930s in which Tippett, later famous for his devoted pacifism, wrote: ‘I am not a pacifist but a military enthusiast – for the war on capitalist ideology, frustrations, injustices, hypocrisies, etc etc – and war to the knife, to the death if need be […] one brings the house down in order to clear the ground for a “better” one.’ Or another, reacting to the government’s commitment to rearmament: ‘by all means prepare your white paper, and when we get the guns so built, we will shoot you with them.’ Blazing letters such as these gave little hint of the irresistible fun of Tippett’s personality, his dazzling charm, his sheer likeability.

Revelations

Little to none of this was known, and I had to take a deep breath before putting it into print. None of it makes easy reading, and none of it should be taken out of context. Think, for example, of Auden’s withdrawn poem Spain, in which the poet wrote of ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’. Tippett was one of a generation of artists who were thrown politically off-the-rails by the looming spectre of fascism. But what sense this decade of political activism makes of his music and its slow beginnings! Examination of his unpublished manuscripts (over 30 of these) reveals the politics bleeding temporarily into the work.

The Influence of Politcs on Tippett’s Music  

Much of Tippett’s musical activity prior to 1935 had sprung out of his involvement with work camps set up to employ and inspire the mining communities of North Yorkshire, blighted by depression and unemployment. In 1934, before he had entirely abandoned his support of Stalin’s policies, he wrote for them his early opera Robin Hood. Sprinkled throughout are folk songs with newly written lyrics in which, like green vegetables tucked into a child’s mashed potato, Tippett included veiled references to Uncle Joe’s ‘five-year’ agricultural plan for the Soviet Union.

The rhythmic invention at which he arrived in his String Quartet No. 1 seemed to be put on hold, as he wrote first a Trotskyist agitprop play entitled War Ramp, and then composed scores for agitprop ballets, one orchestrated ‘for a very odd collection of wood blocks, tin cans, etc’. A setting of Blake’s A Song of Liberty, which praises the revolutions in Europe and America, seems to be nothing short of Tippett’s call to arms: 63 pages of thorny recitative finally conclude that ‘empire is no more’. Political involvement acted like a dam, diverting the course of his compositions for the best part of a decade. All of these incendiary scores he eventually destroyed or withdrew.

A Child of Our Time

Even his famous oratorio A Child of Our Time, inspired by the assassination of a Nazi official by the Polish-Jewish refugee Herschel Grynszpan, and the resulting ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom, is cast in a striking new light by knowledge of Tippett’s political involvement. Grynszpan, universalised in the oratorio as society’s outcast, was regarded by Tippett as the ideal: the youth who turns a gun on authority. Trotsky stated his ‘open moral solidarity’ with Grynszpan, concluding that the attack ‘may serve as an example for every young revolutionist’.

Even Tippett’s famous idea of studding the work with spirituals, as contemporary parallels to the Lutheran chorales in Bach’s Passions, recalls his political work in the previous decade. He had become involved with a number of politically inclined pageants, vast affairs with casts of thousands staged in venues such as the Wembley Stadium or the Crystal Palace, and had worked with the theatrical-duo Edward Genn and Matthew Anderson, whose Lancashire Cotton Pageant, performed in Manchester in 1932, had included spirituals. Among his close friends of the time was composer Alan Bush, who had reconfigured Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar as a political pageant at the Scala Theatre in Camden; the structural basis of A Child of Our Time was Handel’s Messiah.

But as A Child of Our Time progressed, Tippett was emotionally recalibrating himself. He quickly turned his back on a belief in the needful violence of revolution, coming to think his Trotskyism was merely a projection of inner turmoil, especially when a consuming love affair stuttered to a painful halt. A period of Jungian therapy eased his heart, and the looming prospect of war focused his mind. He was able to give up his revolutionary politics and, with uncanny synchronicity, embarked upon his first ‘mature’ works.

A Child of Our Time comes from a political mind on the cusp, daringly sympathetic towards a murderous figure, portraying an act that its composer would once have believed justifiably violent, but inviting the conclusion that no good political effect has been achieved bar further suffering. By the time Tippett completed the oratorio’s composition, he was devoting himself to the Peace Pledge Union, and the final spiritual, ‘Deep River’, longs for a ‘land where all is peace’.

The oratorio lay in a drawer until its premiere, in Blitz-crushed London, in March 1944, by which time its composer had been to prison. Reviews were favourable; Tippett had begun his slow journey to acclaim. By 1948 he was happily undertaking a commission to celebrate the birth of Prince Charles. The extent of his Trotskyism was a well-kept secret. The initials of the British Empire, which he had once hated so much, were soon swagged around his name as he was made a CBE. A knighthood followed, accepted with a cheery scepticism.

Through his long career, as he first destroyed and then rebuilt the billowing lyricism of his earliest works, he seemed to undergo that peculiar mellowing that comes to most successful artists, as they shift from left-wing rebel to establishment figure – although, if his outfits and, most of all, his music are anything to go by, joining an establishment was simply a means of probing it from within. His strange journey from national traitor to national treasure was complete.

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Oliver Soden is the author of Michael Tippett: The Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)