Michael Tippett

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Michael Tippett – (Sir Michael Kemp Tippett by Martin Rose acrylic on canvas, 1989 Primary Collection)

Co-curator Paul Moorhouse, deep in thought, looking at Tippett

ONLY CONNECT in progress. A personal note-July 2011: The arrival of Martin Rose’s portrait of Tippett in the gallery space was one I will never forget. Nothing prepared me for the brilliance of this painting, and for its sense of the man himself. This is as much a portrait of the imaginative shimmer that hovered around, emanated from Tippett, as of his features. It was something that I first encountered when I had the chance to talk to him when I was 18-when, in truth, he berated me, for inflexibility of thought, and ordered me to embrace pluralism. This was something that did not vanish in death-every time I have the chance to play his quartets, I am caught up again in his web, ensnared and entranced. We played his 3rd Quartet, and Beethoven at his funeral in 1998. Afterwards I rode the bus home with Norman Platt, the genius of Kent Opera, who had made groundbreaking productions of his stage works. Like Traherne, he ‘felt a vigour in [his] sense,/that was all Spirit…’

Memories of Tippett. PSS with the great composer on 30th July 1995

At the heart of this ‘net’ of creators and communicators lies the mystical relationship between Beethoven, Eliot and Tippett. The orchestral version of Tippett’s 4th Quartet is known as ‘Water out of Sunlight’. Tippett made the decision, when he and his amanuensis, Meirion Bowen made this version, to be more public about the link to Eliot’s Four Quartets than had been revealed on the original quartet score.

It had been Eliot who encouraged the composer to be more confident about his own poetry; Tippett went to him for advice about further reading:

‘About the time I was working on the scenario for The Midsummer Marriage, I said to Eliot “I’ve read all your poetry and prose and know it well. Who should I read next?” He replied, “Yeats, begin with The Tower.”

Barbara Hepworth was enageged to create sets, costumes and props for this ritualistic mystery of an opera. She remembered:

‘I first got to know Michael Tippett well in 1952, when we were all working on the idea of the St Ives Festival of Music which took place in June 1953. It was in 1954 that he approached me about the sets for The Midsummer Marriage. We discussed it, sitting in my garden, and for the next months I had the opportunity of seeing him at work and appreciating more and more his remarkable powers of disciplined and yet inspired co-operation.’

She was well aware that however, much the British were prepared to accept the experimental, the avant-garde in the visual arts, when it came to opera, things were very different. However she saw in Tippett, the vision and the indefatigability to change things, to move away from the sentimentally romantic vision of theatre. This, it must be remembered, was despite the poor reaction to Britten’s ‘coronation opera’, Gloriana, the year before:

‘The English find a romantic idea easier to accept; but I still have an absolute faith in the classical development even in opera (that most difficult of all the arts), and I believe that just round the corner, as Michael Tippett saw, the composer can find a new form which will in the future be full of meaning for our society.’

With this extraordinary work, Tippett began to challenge ‘the long reign of Britten.’

Noel Coward was at the premiere of Gloriana and was not impressed:

‘Dickie and Edwina brought Princess Margaret to the Café last night; very amiable. Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana for the Royal Gala performance. Apparently a bugger. Dull, without melody as usual with Mr B., and not happily chosen.’

Sir William Glock was began an innovatory educational presentations of music in 1943. Between June and August that year, Tippett was imprisoned as a conscientious objecter at Wormwood Scrubs, as ‘Prisoner 5832’ at Wormwood Scrubs. While he was in in gaol, he presented concerts and conucted. Vaughan Williams spoke on his behalf at his trial in Oxted, Surrey. Later that year Glock’s lecture-concert series began. He remembered:

‘In 1943, however, I met Clive Wilson. He was one of the directors of the Universal Grinding Wheel Company at Stafford, and had an impassioned interest in the visual arts and music. Together we had started a series of concerts called ‘Fridays’, and leading musicians such as Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears took part. It was at these ‘Fridays’ that I was first persuaded to undergo the ordeal of lecturing….’

The line from Eliot’s masterpiece which had inspired Tippett’s most Beethoven-ian quartet was:

‘Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,/And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight.
And the lots rose, quietly, quietly,/The surface glittered out of heart of light,/And they were behind us, reflected in the pool./Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty./Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,/Hidden excitedly, containing laughter./Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality./Time past and time future/What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.’

I am reading this from the copy of Four Quartets which a friend gave me when I was fifteen. I struggled to understand it then, just as I struggle with it now. I struggled with Beethoven then, as Eliot and Tippett seemed to, and I struggle with him now. But that struggle, that conversation, is a comfortable place of discovery and adventure.

The poem begins with a quote, from Herakleitos:

-the road out and back is one and the same-

This quote, like this poem, sits hidden at the heart of Only Connect.

Britten, David Matthews, Life and Times/Haus Publication, London, 2003, P.69

Those twentieth century blues, Michael Tippett, Pimlico, London 1994, P.271

Barbara Hepworth-A pictorial Autobiography, Tate Publishing, 1970 (rev.1985), P.68

The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, Hutchinson, P.662

The Noel Coward Diaries, Payn & Morley, Phoenix, London, 1982, P.214

A Musical Gazeteer of Great Britan and Ireland, Gerald Norris, David Charles, Newton Abbot/London, 1981,P.51

Notes in Advance, William Glock, OUP, Oxford, 1991, P.44

Four Quartets, T S Eliot, Faber and Faber, London, 1944, P.14