Michael Tippett was an exceptional creative figure: a true visionary with a remarkable gift, we now realise, for encapsulating in his music a profound humanity and generosity of spirit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Tippett’s lifelong quest to gain insight in to the human condition, his music reflects an uncertainty, a striving to express the inexpressible, while at the same time, contains a remarkable amount of optimism: the same optimism and vibrancy that emanated from him in person. His was a fantastically inspiring presence.

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Truly original composers like Tippett are creating something new and unique. His imaginative world needs to be put on paper in order for executants to be able to give his music a sonic reality. And herein lies a challenge – how to notate effectively what Tippett was hearing in his head.

I have collaborated with so many composers over the years, and it is almost never the case that a composer succeeds in notating precisely what was their original musical intention. Such is the limitation of musical notation! One of the more extreme examples of this was Harrison Birtwistle, whose thoughts, both the most complex and the most simple, always benefitted from his further instructions for performers about how to truly reflect his musical intentions. Sometimes to the point of frustration....

The particular case of Tippett’s Second Symphony, which (in)famously broke down at the first performance, is worth a moment or two’s consideration. This first thing that struck me about the score is that the original metronome marking of crotchet=116 is hugely optimistic. There is such a wealth of detail and complexity in this first movement that I simply cannot imagine a performance succeeding at that tempo. So the conductor needs to find a suitable compromise. The Vivaldi-inspired repeated C’s of the opening need vitality and energy, but practicality dictates that this vitality needs not to overstep the tempo reality. Tippett marks the violins' first entry brillante, and the horns syncopations are marked con forza – we are all given permission to really go for it! Which is exactly what the music requires, and exactly what the performers want to engage with.

Unfortunately at Figure 8 there is such a collision of contrapuntal lines, plus the rather unconventional notation Tippett uses for the violin lines, that a real danger to the performance is at hand.

Tippett’s musical imagination, which he so rigorously worked out in his painstakingly detailed compositional process, demands that his music be thus notated. But this awkwardly expressed notation in itself contributes to the difficulty of expressing the musical text. There are, similarly, obstacles to overcome in the following three movements – but with care in preparation, thorough rehearsal and clarity in directional, are surmountable.

Conducting is a very 'precise' form of physical musical communication. The atmosphere and mood of the music needs absolute clarity of expression. The tempo has to be so carefully regulated in order that the music flows in the correct manner. The balance of the musical forces requires absolute refinement, as do the dynamics and expression markings Tippett offers. And finally everybody has to play together!

Given that in my opinion Tippett has his own unique expressive voice, the conductor has to apply a special and personal set of performance-practice rules to this music in order that it communicates fully to an audience. That is surely the joy of performing the music of this truly visionary composer.

Martyn Brabbins

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Michael Tippett: The Shadow and The Light, is broadcast on BBC Two at 9pm on 8 June 2023. Filmmaker John Bridcut turns his attention to British composer Michael Tippett in a portrait of a political and musical activist featuring contributions from Sir Colin Davis, Sir Andrew Davis, Sian Edwards, Martyn Brabbins, Edward Gardner, Alexander Goehr and Mark-Anthony Turnage. The documentary also features specially filmed performances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Harish Shankar, with the Bearsden Choir, and soloists Steven Osborne (piano) and Sean Shibe (guitar).

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