Tippett: A Composer For Our Time?

Antarctic Ice, by Tanya Patrick of CSIRO. Shared under Creative Commons, source here.

           By Will Frampton

There is a telling scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys in which ‘the boys’ are being prepared for their Oxbridge interviews. On the subject of music one boy offers his love of Mozart, but is urged to reference someone ‘more off the beaten track. Tippett or Bruckner.’  Tippett may be considered off the beaten track, but the ideas and problems that stimulated his music are perhaps more than ever relevant for a contemporary audience.

During his lifetime Sir Michael Tippett was considered one of Britain’s leading composers, however since his death in 1998 his vast output, despite a cult following, has largely been overlooked for concert programs and radio playlists. Tippett was a composer of ideas about the world, he himself stated that his central preoccupation was ‘the question of what sort of world we live in and how we may behave in it’.

Tippett’s music is brimming with energy and ebullience, seemingly celebrating the challenge of humanity to bring together darkness and light. It engages with questions of war, sexuality, race, and class in ways that are highly relevant in today’s world of heightened political and social tensions.


Michael Tippett was born on January 2nd 1905 to middle class but socially progressive parents. His extended family had a history of involvement in music, culture, and politics. Soon after leaving the Royal College of Music Tippett began to see the social benefits of music making. He worked in summer camps near mining villages, conducted an orchestra for unemployed musicians, and taught at London’s Morley College, which has long been associated with educating the underprivileged.

While Tippett was directly associated with a handful of left-wing political groups for a brief period in the 1930s, he gradually came to view political beliefs as ‘manifestations of deeper human impulses’.  He thus began to prioritise the attainment of psychological balance over political activism – and believed this balance could best be achieved through music making.

It was perhaps his faith in the social benefits of music more than any other factor that led Tippett to serve a prison sentence for his pacifist beliefs during World War Two. Upon registering as a conscientious objector, the composer was instructed to undertake manual labour work. He refused this ‘because of his conviction that music was the field in which he could best serve the community’.

Therefore in 1943 he was sentenced to three months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs. Years later when Tippett was being awarded a CBE his mother, who as a Suffragette had also undergone a brief period of incarceration, is reported to have said that her son’s imprisonment was the proudest she had ever been of him.

Around this time Tippett was completing his first mature works as a composer. The Concerto for Double String Orchestra of 1939 is the work of a man assuredly speaking in his own musical voice. Showing off a romantic and melodic style, the work features Tippett’s distinctive quirky rhythms and dashing string writing. But before serving his sentence Tippett finished what is considered to be his first major work. Started just two days after the outbreak of the Second World War, the oratorio A Child of Our Time was written at great speed in fear that the war would prevent its completion.

Inspiration for the oratorio’s subject matter was found in the Kristallnacht (‘Night of the Broken Glass’) pogrom against Jews throughout Germany. Tippett created a dramatic and narrative structure informed by Baroque models. The composer was especially fascinated by the tripartite structure of Handel’s Messiah in which the first part is preparation and prophecy, the second presents the substance of the story, and the third is a meditation on the events previously depicted.

He wanted to combine this with the more unifying form of Bach’s Lutheran Passions which are structured around narrational recitatives, descriptive choruses, contemplative arias, and congregational hymns. However, wishing to express the turmoil of the mid-20th century, Tippett struggled to find a unifying music that could be used in place of the congregational hymn.

A moment of inspiration was found when listening to a performance of black American spirituals on the radio. He realised that in Europe, and perhaps beyond, these would hold no ‘expressional barriers’. A Child of Our Time uses five spirituals which subvert the Lutheran form by transforming these moments of congregation into moments of climax.

Tippett’s use of these spirituals have led some to argue that Tippett was as a cultural appropriator; a white man making use of songs composed out of black suffering. But his interest in race relations, expressed particularly in later operas The Knot Garden and The Ice Break, suggests he was choosing music which he felt expressed a deep humanity and exposed the troubles of the age beyond the war in Europe.

A Child of Our Time opens with the declamation ‘The world turns on its dark side. It is winter,’ sung by the choir over chromatically shifting harmonies which forge the uneasy landscape upon which the drama will unfold. The disquiet of this opening gives way to a terrifying depiction of the violence of war and is best illustrated by the chorus ‘The Terror’. The words ‘Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel!’ are stabbed out across the choir over frantically rushing string lines.

Despite the darkness of the subject, Tippett insists upon humanity’s ability to find light. Before the final chorus a series of soloists sing:

I would know my shadow and my light,
So shall I at last be whole.
Then courage, brother, dare the grave passage.
Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope.
The moving waters renew the earth.
It is spring.

One by one each of the four-part choir joins in, before a final hope-filled spiritual ends the work. A Child of our Time uses musical form from ‘high’ art, and an element that would typically be considered ‘low’ art to articulate the struggles of uniting divided selves and divided communities. Beyond this, the work has a strong message that it is everyone’s responsibility to engage with and highlight the oppression or degradation of peoples, even when it is the suffering of people of a different race, gender or creed to our own.

Much of Tippett’s concern with the uniting of divided elements came from an interest in psychology which had been deepening since his student days. In particular Tippett was an admirer of Carl Jung and underwent analysis and self-analysis in the late 1930s. In Jungian psychology there is a theory called ‘the opposites’ which Frieda Fordham explains:

The greater tension between the pairs of opposites the greater the energy; without opposition there is no manifest energy […] The opposites have a regulating function […] and when one extreme is reached libido passes over into its opposite.

In essence Jung’s theory is that we all consist of opposites but it is only when these opposites interact and unite that energy and positivity is created. It is in this theory that we find the root of Tippett’s desire to unite divided elements. If fear of the unknown ‘other’ or ‘opposite’ generates divisions in society then it is only by interacting and ultimately uniting with the other that this fear, and the divisions it creates, can be overcome.

In the late 2010s, where political developments have thrown into sharp relief the divisions in society, and in particular the scepticism over the progress of globalisation, Tippett’s message would be to embrace the extraordinary outcomes that can only be achieved when people are united. A Child of our Time set in motion themes and techniques that, in different combinations and guises, would provide the bedrock for all of Tippett’s work as a composer.


Tippett wrote his own libretto for each of his operas, at times using source material as diverse as myth, literature, and soap opera. For The Knot Garden and The Ice Break he worked in entirely fictionalised worlds. Not only are these operas deeply engaged in their own time but viewed by a contemporary audience they are often disturbingly prescient for the twenty-first century.

The principle idea of The Knot Garden was to present a series of characters each with equal importance. The seven characters shift between established relationships into new pairings of twos or threes. If this opera were written today it would almost certainly be criticised for excessive political correctness – Tippett gave equal voice to all of contemporary society and the libretto is explicit that the cast includes straight, gay (or seemingly bi-sexual), white, black, latino, and disabled and disfigured characters.

In the mid-1960s Tippett was highlighting issues of diversity which are still in the process of becoming part of mainstream thought. He took the ideas of The Knot Garden further in 1977’s The Ice Break which is about ‘contemporary difficulties of communication at various levels’ and in particular deals with reconciling the individual from the stereotype.

During the short introduction, brass chords – which encapsulate the sense of ice breaking – dramatically crescendo out of a texture of low strings line. The drama commences in an airport lounge, and after a white character attacks a black Olympian, a race riot takes place. The stage is flooded with a mass chorus. The characters, even those once friends, merge into their respective mobs of black and white.

The music is always cold with the crescendoing brass chords a constant reminder of the fragility of the drama’s landscape. The opera raises many issues, but while its ending hints at Tippett’s theme of uniting opposites, it remains distinctly ‘answerless’. The libretto finishes with a quote from Goethe:

Yet you will always be brought forth again […] and likewise be maimed, wounded afresh, from within or without.   

While Tippett’s usual dark/light dialectic exists it is for the first time not from the point of view of hope. Like the image of the ice breaking, all human relations are rebuilt only to be destroyed again.

Of all the ideas and problems Tippett’s music deals with, those raised in The Ice Break are sadly still most relevant, as events such as the far-right rally in Charlottesville show. For that reason, not to mention its guaranteed casting for black singers, it is dispiriting that it took 38 years for its one-off 2015 revival in Birmingham.


Tippett died on January 8th 1998 at the age of 93. Through his career flowered four symphonies, five string quartets, five operas, and numerous other chamber, orchestral, and vocal pieces. And yet his music never had an entirely comfortable place in British culture. He once said that when he made a dramatic change his style with his second opera King Priam it was met with pleas by critics for him to return to his previous melodic style, which they had then chastised for being old fashioned.

His music raises many troublesome questions but the answer is almost certainly that unity is always the only way forward. The constant message throughout his work is that darkness and opposition can only be conquered by uniting them with brightness and progression. To recall a refrain from A Child of our Time, ‘I shall know my shadow from my light, so shall I at last be whole’.

In the world of radical and reactionary politics and a time when globalisation is met with nationalism Tippett’s message, humble as it may be, is more important than ever. In the words of the composer himself, ‘music is a performance and needs an audience’. But are we prepared to listen?

Will Frampton is a composer, conductor, and writer on music. They are currently undertaking a PhD in composition at the University of Manchester. Will’s works, often noted for their expressive and lyrical quality, are performed regularly including by ensembles such as the orchestra of Opera North, Allegri Quartet, Ligeti Quartet, and Berkeley Ensemble. For more info please visit www.willframpton.co.uk

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