Tippett: A Composer In Love

Danyel Gilgan looks at an intense relationship in Tippett’s early career.

Michael Tippett (right) with Wilf Franks in Spain in 1933. Reproduced here by kind permission of Caroline Ayerst.

By Danyel Gilgan

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is to revive a Michael Tippett work which has not been performed for over 70 years. His Symphony in B-flat of 1933-4 will provide classical music lovers with a valuable insight into a rich but largely overlooked period of Tippett’s output. At this time in the composer’s life, his work was deeply influenced by an intense experience of falling in love.

Tippett’s two following compositions, the Robin Hood folk opera (1934) and String Quartet No.1 (1935), are characteristically diverse in nature but, in their own way, both give us great insight into the mind of this fascinating composer.

The former was written for, and performed by, a Yorkshire mining community that Tippett and other volunteers came to help as they struggled to survive during the Great Depression. The very nature of this work is a testament to the composer’s humanitarian instincts and to the compassionate outlook of a man who believed that music could make a positive contribution to our wider social consciousness.

The String Quartet No.1 is of an altogether different nature. Credited with being the piece in which the composer finally found his own unique musical idiom, the work is dedicated to Wilfred Franks, who Tippett worked alongside in Yorkshire. In his 1991 autobiography Tippett wrote the following:

Meeting with Wilf was the deepest, most shattering experience of falling in love: and I am quite convinced it was a major factor underlying the discovery of my own individual musical voice [….] all that love flowed out in the slow movement of my first string quartet, an unbroken span of lyrical music in which all four instruments sing ardently from start to finish.

This extraordinary statement begs the inevitable question: who was Wilf Franks? And what was it that the composer found so inspiring about a man who has up until now remained an enigma to the many music scholars and academics who have written about Sir Michael?

At this point, I must declare an interest. Wilf was my maternal grandfather. I have spent much of the last four years writing a biography about this dear relative, whose young life was something of a mystery even to his close family.

In a recent email, Meirion Bowen (Tippett’s biographer and partner in later life) explained to me something of the attraction.

Wilf certainly made a deep impact on Michael, for he seemed to represent a ‘free’ individual, unencumbered by social convention, standard politics and religion. Michael thought this quite wonderful. It was the exact opposite of what Michael himself had experienced as a child of middle class parents.

The notion of class is interesting in the context of Wilf and Michael’s friendship, but it has often been misrepresented. One writer recently failed to fully understand the relationship, in saying that ‘part of Franks’ attraction […] was his working-class ordinariness’.

It is true that Wilf came from a family of twelve who lived in a small terraced house in North London. But despite having little money, they were certainly a cultured family – Wilf’s older brother studied at the Royal College of Music and his father was an orchestral violinist. More misleading, though, is the suggestion that Wilf was somehow ‘ordinary’.

The truth is that my grandfather would be far better described as wildly eccentric. His alternative view of life was in part informed by his inter-war association with an interesting collective of outdoor experimentalists called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. The Kindred were a camping and hiking group who had broken away from the Scout movement. Influenced by Native American spirituality, they promoted healthy living and craft skills, and sought to build a society free from war or poverty. Many years later, Tippett referred to them as ‘a most extraordinary movement’.

It was through the Kindred that Wilf met a well-connected English eccentric called Rolf Gardiner. He was a pioneer of organic farming, a passionate advocate of traditional folk dance and a leader of Anglo-German youth gatherings. In his late teens, Wilf went to live and work at Gardiner’s Gore Farm Estate in Dorset, where, along with planting trees and constructing barns, the two men would go for naked early morning runs across Cranborne Chase.

Having worked for eighteen months at Gore Farm, Wilf’s life took an extraordinary turn. Gardiner’s close friend Carl Heinrich Becker was minister for culture and education in the Prussian Government, and he arranged for Wilf to study at the Weimar Bauhochschule, an offshoot of the famous Bauhaus design school. My grandfather, who had previously earned a living as a London street artist, suddenly found himself mixing with members of the avant-garde in Weimar Germany. It was here that he first discovered the Marxist politics that he and Tippett would later espouse.

On his return to England, Wilf became involved with the Yorkshire miners who had lost their jobs when the local iron-stone mines closed. Wilf became part of the close-knit mining community, staying in the village of Boosbeck for extended periods as he started a furniture making scheme with a group of locals.

Tippett came to Yorkshire with Francesca Allinson, a dear friend and the only woman with whom he contemplated marriage. He produced musical productions with the miners, including a socialist interpretation of the Robin Hood story. It was here, amongst the hardship and poverty of depression-era Yorkshire that Wilf’s relationship with Michael Tippett blossomed.

A wood carving made by Wilf in 1932, the year he met Tippett. Image reproduced by kind permission of Jessica Anderson.

In 1933, Tippett and his great friend David Ayerst went travelling with Wilf around France and Spain, and it was surely Wilf’s liberating influence which nearly got the young men arrested by a French Gendarme during an impromptu episode of skinny-dipping near the Spanish border.

Tippett’s contemporary letters reveal a collaborative, creative relationship, but one which Wilf was reluctant to commit to. As Tippett wrote in 1937:

It is what he has asked for all the time – for me to turn my eyes elsewhere that he may be able to come closer himself [… ] This time he spends an hour or so with me here on the Blake I am going to set, and with a surer instinct for poetry than mine tells me where to get off. 

At times, Michael’s frustration at Wilf’s hesitancy boiled over into bitter arguments. No doubt, in these dark moments of frustration, Tippett found solace by escaping into an alternative world of musical composition:

I’ve retired into my musical shell again for the moment – also Wilf has become a pivot point for me and it’s got its touch of heartbreak [… ] I don’t like him being away, because I torture myself with difficulties and moralities [… ] the Wilf mood is only in spasms – I’m at work again at music and the season’s concerts – BBC don’t want the Symphony [in B-flat]. 

The two men campaigned for peace through international socialism and worked together on numerous creative projects including a ‘Symphony of Youth’ at Brockwell Park in South London. In 1936, it was Tippett who bailed Wilf out after he was arrested while helping to block Oswald Moseley’s fascist Blackshirts from marching through Jewish East London during the so-called ‘Battle Of Cable Street’. Both men would later be imprisoned as conscientious objectors during the Second World War.

A mural depicting The Battle Of Cable Street in Shadwell, East London. Picture by astonishme, shared under Creative Commons.

The intense and tempestuous six-year relationship between the two men ended in complete heart-break for the composer when Wilf fell in love with Meg Masters, a young female dance partner. Tippett wrote the following:

One evening in 1938, I reached the café ahead of him and sat brooding on the section I had reached in the slow movement of my double concerto. When Wilf arrived he said, “I have decided to marry this girl”. I went completely cold […] I returned to Oxted and had such violent dreams, it was as if a whole dam had opened.

The slow movement of the Concerto For Double String Orchestra was perhaps the last direct musical link to the story. It is difficult to read Tippett’s description of the split without feeling something of his pain, especially as he endured further heartbreak when his dear friend Francesca Allinson committed suicide in 1945. But Wilf’s relationship with Meg also ended sadly, though this time it seems that Wilf was left nursing a broken heart.

Tippett sought Wilf out in the mid-1980s, and the two men were reunited 46 years after the split. ‘Wilf Franks had walked out of Michael’s life in 1938, but not out of his dreams’, Tippett’s lifelong friend David Ayerst said. ‘The old magic was still there but no longer assertive or possessive’.

The friendship was rekindled and the two men met up on numerous occasions in old age. The youthful troubles, though, were never far away, and the relationship remained volatile.

We became deeply embroiled in a political argument: Marxism had remained for Wilf a vivid reality. Seeing him again after forty years or so, I went emotionally into a flat spin, but Bill [Meirion Bowen] helped me out of it.

One reason why this profound love affair has not featured more prominently in the Tippett story is a lack of surviving letters between the two men. None were thought to exist, but I recently found a hand-written note the composer sent to my grandparents in his final years. Tippett’s handwriting was now frail and his eyesight fading. This moving letter is likely one of the last he wrote and it reveals that the emotional confusion from the youthful days was still alive.

Dear Wilf and Daphne, to ring you both, then talk only to Wilf, seems to me now, like a confused attempt, by me anyhow, to hold something from the past. Never works. So now, love to you both & good luck to your next generation. For my part, however, I peer into the future. Michael.

Letter shared with the kind permission of Wilf’s daughter, Helen Busby.

As we gather to hear the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra illuminate the beginning of this period in Sir Michael’s work, it is worth remembering the curious love story which dominated this part of the composer’s life, a time that Tippett himself referred to as ‘the Wilf period.’

With thanks Caroline Ayerst for sharing material relating to her father, Malcolm Chase for his research into the East Cleveland Work Camps, and Meirion Bowen for reviewing this article prior to publication. The author also thanks the Will Trustees of the Tippett Estate for permission to quote from the letters and writings of Michael Tippett.

• The Symphony in B-flat will be performed in Glasgow by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on 1st February 2018 (tickets here). 

• Tippett’s String Quartet No1. will be performed in Robin Hood’s Bay, as part of the North Yorkshire Moors Chamber Music Festival, on 20th August 2018 (tickets here).

Danyel Gilgan studied Furniture design at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design before gaining a post graduate teaching qualification at Middlesex University. However most of his career has been spent working in sports broadcasting, and he currently travels the world with the ATP Tennis tour. He has spent the last four years researching the life of his late grandfather, Wilf Franks, whose alternative view of life had a profound effect on Michael Tippett. His research informs a recently-completed book which is a work of biographical fiction entitled ‘Wilfred Franks – The Life Before’ for which he is now seeking a publisher.