Michael Tippett, The Biography by Oliver Soden

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Reviewed by Peter Hobson

This is a very long, extensively referenced account of the life and music of Michael Tippett, a composer who is often regarded as someone who never quite lived up to the promise of some of his early works and was, and remains, in the shadow of his contemporary Benjamin Britten.

I doubt if a more comprehensive book on Tippett the man is ever likely to be written, and Sodden’s extensively researched (over 60 pages of chapter notes alone) and extraordinarily detailed work focusses on his complex and fascinating life rather than the technical details of the compositions. The author makes it clear in his introduction that “I invite musicologists and performers to go on from here.”

I was slightly familiar with Tippett’s music, principally A Child of Our Time, but knew nothing at all about him before reading this biography. I think it fair to say that perhaps the book is overly long and could have been edited more strictly, though I commend the publishers for including the extensive set of references and for providing a comprehensive index. Despite my slight misgiving it was an engrossing read and even if you have only a modest interest in Tippet or his music, the insight into the life of an artistic homosexual (perhaps bisexual) man at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and with the tumult of the inter-war period, the optimism of the 1960s and with his commitment to pacifism and communism thrown in made it a real page-turner for me.

The biography follows, as is typical, a linear chronological path from Tippett’s early childhood through some awful school experiences at Fettes College in my birth city of Edinburgh, to early days of music study and composition. We learn a great deal about his parents, his mother a suffragette imprisoned for the cause and his father who pursued a variety of business enterprises with varying degrees of success. A great deal of the adolescent and early adult years show his growing attraction to men, something which caused him much pain, and joy, throughout his long life. It still comes as a shock to me, just how late the decriminalisation of homosexual acts occurred (1967 in England but as late as 1980 in Scotland) and I can only wonder at the bravery, and recklessness in some instances, of Tippett and his lovers in the face of the draconian penalties. Tippett was someone who clearly avoided conflict in his personal life, mirroring his pacificism, often going on holiday with lovers and ex-lovers together. I was interested to read how torn Tippet was between his attraction to men and his much more muted, attraction to his female friends, some of whom he considered marrying.

This biography goes into incredible detail about all aspects, joyous, productive or painful of Tippett’s life and it paints a fascinating picture of a generation of artists, mainly but certainly not exclusively male, growing up in a time of relative freedom, particularly in same-sex relationships in the world of the arts, in the inter-war years and the attractions, or so they seemed, of alternative political philosophies such as communism. The Second World War was tough on Tippett, who was a conscientious objector, and events post war, such as the invasion of Hungary, finally removed from him any hope that communism as practiced in the Soviet Union was a force for good. He comes across as someone who was fascinating, infuriating, unreliable, loving and simultaneously very generous and selfish. His final years saw several rather less successful compositions and librettos which have not proved to be the gold standard of his musical legacy. However works such as King Priam and some of his concertos, symphonies and sonatas certainly stand comparison with the best of C20 classical compositions. If you have never heard anything, or anything you liked, by Tippett, perhaps start with the Concerto for Double String Orchestra from 1939 which is energetic, complex and melodic.

Despite some shortcomings, principally the lack of any significant analysis of Tippett’s music and no extracts from scores provided even as an example, I did enjoy reading this book. What it also did was inspire me to listen to his music again and to explore many works new to me by a composer who is perhaps finally getting a little more of the recognition he deserves.

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Peter Hobson is an experimental particle physicist and amateur flautist. He notes that the manuscript for Tippett’s only piece written primarily for flute is lost.

Oliver Soden, Michael Tippett: The Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2019). 978-474606028, 750pp., hardcover.

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  1. Fascinating! Though I would think you might have to spend a little space on the music in a book like this!

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