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Friday, January 9, 1998 Published at 15:27 GMT

World: Analysis

The music of Sir Michael Tippett
image: [ Sir Michael Tippett ]
Sir Michael Tippett

The death of Sir Michael Tippett at the age of 93 means Britain has lost one of its greatest composers. He was a late starter in music who did not make his name until he was nearly 40. He remained an individualist all his life, in his composition and in his beliefs. Zina Rohan looks back at his life in music.

The work that brought Sir Michael Tippett to prominence was his oratorio, 'A Child of our Time' which he composed as a response to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. It was first performed in London in 1944 towards the end of the Second World War. In it he fused the moods and melodies of Negro spirituals with a sort of expansive lyricism all his own. His purpose was one that was to return again and again.

He put it like this: "It's a question of survival, if you like, which has become something desperately needed. Also the other element which was so strong is concerned with compassion in a world which is so driven and riven by fratricidal struggle and by self-righteousness of every kind"

Sir Michael didn't come from a musical family and, when he was at school, music wasn't taken seriously as a subject on the curriculum of England's schools. So even he was at a loss to say where the urge to compose came from:

"It was a very instinctive process coming from right the way back in my childhood at my mother's knee. But there was no conscious idea of what this would be, partly because my parents were quite unmusical in the professional sense. Music was not their field, nor in my field as a boy. There was no radio, no TV, and no records even. And therefore it was not until at the end of my schooldays, 16, 17, that I really became aware of music as a professional existence and I realised that I somehow belonged inside this absolutely strange world."

Sir Michael studied composition, conducting and piano at the Royal College of music in London, and later became a schoolteacher, teaching French to keep himself while he set about finding a musical voice of his own.

He didn't want to be a part of the trend of what was called New Music at the time. Instead he was interested in the polyphony (separate lines of music intermingling) first of the Italian renaissance composer Palestrina, and then the English composers of the 16th century.

From this early music he developed a flowing rhythmic style which ignored the regular beats and strict bar lines of a later age. The conductors of his time found it hard to deal with.

While other young composers were plunging into new sounds, Sir Michael continued to immerse himself in the past, in the works of musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally, Beethoven, whom he had turned away from as a boy, fearing undue influence. Only after this experience, he said, would he be ready to engage with more contemporary sounds. What he was seeking was the balance between the classical and romantic traditions.

But he wasn't only a devotee of earlier ages. He also had a passion for the blues singers of years between the two world wars. The blending of simple chords with a complex musical line fascinated him. But so did the social content.

He said: "Blues was not to make you weep and moan. If you sang the blues it was to get yourself out of being blue."

It may be that one early influence on his social attitudes came from his mother who had been closely associated with the suffragette movement. Even as a boy in school he was a left-winger, and this he remained.

He became more radical after seeing the miserable conditions of the small mining village in the north of England where he had been invited to take charge of music at an annual work-camp. And as he learned more about the extremes of fascism and communism, he became a convinced pacifist.

When Britain went to war in 1939, he registered as a conscientious objector, which was to mean a two month spell in jail. He felt he been treated with great lenience:

"I had an incredibly light time, don't misunderstand me, although it was a deeply moving experience. Because I think you've got to face up to the fact that if you are a conscientious objector in a time of war, of your country at war, then you are excluded from the assembly of your countrymen in a particular manner."

Although there was an immediate appeal to Sir Michael's earlier pieces, spacious and unconstrained, his later composition became more complex and less accessible. The lyricism was replaced with sharper, more jagged music which many people found difficult.

His works went out of vogue in the 1960s and 1970s and have been more rarely performed, although his 90th birthday sparked a series of performances in the most prestigious concert halls worldwide.

He said: "I know that if I am true to the music in me, it must be a music of my agonies and your agonies as much as a music of, what shall I say, of heart-easing qualities. And yet I am quite certain in my heart of hearts that modern music and modern art is not a conspiracy, but is a form of truth and integrity for those who practise it honestly, decently and with all their being."

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