The music of the British composer Michael Tippett - including the oratorio A Child of Our Time, five operas, and four symphonies - is among the most visionary of the 20th Century, but little has been written about his extraordinary life. In this new, first complete biography, arts writer and broadcaster Oliver Soden weaves a century-spanning narrative of epic scope and insight.
An Elephant in Rome
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Soden is bold throughout his book, but most of all when he issues a plea that we stop comparing Tippett and Britten: their visions were in the end so different, he argues, that the exercise is pointless. What’s more, he goes on, Tippett isn’t best understood as an English composer, but as the first British composer convincingly to reconcile strains of European modernism with a view of American music wide enough to embrace Charles Ives, the modernism associated with Elliott Carter, and blues, jazz and rock. Tippett, Soden concludes, should be placed in the European tradition of a visionary like Olivier Messiaen, or the fiercely exploratory German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose landmark opera Die Soldaten collaged slabs of orchestral sound with blasts of jazz and electronics, or the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, whose symphonies posed questions about symphonic form not that different from Tippett’s own.
The challenge to a biographer is to make us feel the shock of these slings and arrows, while maintaining, like one of those constant repeating basses in a piece by Tippett’s beloved forebear Henry Purcell, the sense of a talent unfolding in slow obedience to its own laws. Soden succeeds at this difficult task wonderfully well... Soden doesn’t shrink from suggesting that Tippett’s cold determination to protect his inner life at times caused huge damage to those near him. It’s a measure of this searching and beautifully written biography that, despite that, Tippett comes across as essentially generous and lovable. The exultation of his music finds its echo in the passionate intensity of his life.
Saddled with an almost impossible brief, Soden appears to know the verdict of history will not be sympathetic. He tells the story of this socially fertile life with skill, introducing us to the famous artists Tippett befriended, such as Barbara Hepworth, as well as the men and women who helped to shape that life.
One great friend, Francesca Allinson, killed herself. A lover, Karl Hawker, also took his own life. Other lovers opted for marriage. Unlike Britten, who enjoyed monogamy with Peter Pears, his “husband” and ideal singer, Tippett lived with a few men besides Hawker. Wilfred Franks was an artist, Douglas Newton a poet who later served as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. John Minchinton aspired to be a conductor, and Bill Bowen was a journalist. He cast his net quite widely.
The biography can hardly be anything but compelling, and this — the first full-dress one, 20 years after Tippett’s death — is an exceptional piece of work. It has so much to say about the 20th century from an unusual and compelling angle that it ought to appeal to many readers who don’t necessarily find themselves deep in the world of art music. Tippett has been much neglected since his death by both performers and commentators compared to his ubiquitous contemporary Benjamin Britten. On the other hand, I would say that the post-1990 generation of composers is much more interested in him than in Britten. The Britten bibliography may be 100 times the size, but it contains hardly anything as brilliant as this book. Let the revival begin.
Exhaustively researched, lovingly detailed, epic in scale, revelling in gossip, stuffed with information, this book furnishes every event, major and minor, from birth to death, with comment, observation, quotation. Unpublished letters, diaries, audio tapes and recollections from friends have fuelled the narrative. Each page seethes with anecdote, episode and excursion. At times I wondered whether I could justify so many hours spent absorbed in the composer’s tumultuous love life; his politics; his double pneumonia; troubled friends’ breakdowns and, in some instances, suicide; the cost of his house or its refurbishment; or the state of his parents’ sex life or his own, fascinating though it is.
From the outset, Soden beautifully captures the details of Tippett’s world. He visits the Suffolk village where Tippett grew up on ‘an enchantingly bright and sunny day, the sort of day that makes sense of the flat Suffolk landscape: there is so much sky’. He continues, ‘In the garden I see the well from which water was drawn, and the pond in which … Michael caught tadpoles.’ Throughout, Soden contrasts the details of Tippett’s life with events around him: the collapse of empires, the rise of the suffragettes and the horrors of two world wars.