Tippett’s Forgotten Letters

1937 letter from Michael Tippett To Ruth Pennyman and enclosed newspaper cutting (Teeside Archives).

By Danyel Gilgan

For much of the last five years, I have been writing a book about the life of my late grandfather, Wilf Franks. Wilf was an artist and sculptor who had trained for a period at the Bauhaus art school in Weimar Germany. While there, he came face to face with the Nazis when they closed down the school for producing what they considered to be racially un-pure, degenerate art. Under the tutelage of artists such as László Moholy-Nagy, my grandfather embraced utopian dreams of designing for a new socialist society, dreams that would soon influence a young Michael Tippett’s view of the world.

Through my research, I discovered how Tippett’s romance with Grandad unfolded, the beautiful music which flowed forth, and the heart-break that ensued. My grandfather’s love affair with Tippett was both beautifully collaborative and bitterly divisive, and it played out at a time when gay relationships were morally scorned and forbidden in law. The homosexual composer’s relationship with my bi-sexual grandfather inspired the emotionally charged and achingly beautiful String Quartet No. 1. Tippett famously wrote: ‘Meeting with Wilf was the deepest most shattering experience of falling in love […] all that love flowed out in the slow movement of my First String Quartet.’

Forgotten Letters.

My search to expand the story beyond Tippett’s familiar letters and writings went all over the globe – from Middlesbrough in the north east of England to Sydney in Australia and to Austin, Texas in the United States. At the Teesside archives in Middlesbrough, I found a series of letters that Tippett wrote to Ruth Pennyman, who was a communist sympathiser, a supporter of local unemployed miners, and a rescuer of Basque refugee children.

Ruth Pennyman’s 1947 passport photo -© National Trust / F. Mesham, C. Spencer, R. Skipsey & M. Johnson

She was the wife of a local aristocratic land owner and became a trusted confidant of the two young men who met her while working with a Depression-era mining community in East Cleveland. As I opened these old handwritten letters, I wondered if anyone had read them since Ruth first opened them in the 1930s. In one letter, Tippett wrote about the early stages of his relationship with Wilf in some detail:

I feel I’m a little to blame in Wilf’s not going to Cleveland at once – he decided to, and I said a fond farewell to him – but something changed him while I was away – he wasn’t himself at all – but it may be that vague hopes of seeing a new sort of life possible for him may have contributed.

Wilf was an artist and a free spirit, with an alternative view of the world, but he had no money at all. One letter, written in early summer 1934, shows Tippett’s generous spirit, evidenced in a scheme he was establishing to provide funds for Wilf:

I started a plan to get him £1 a week from five of us giving £10 a year […] You will be amused by all of this but I can’t see it as anything more than an acknowledgment of what we do all the time and in a much more civilised and decent way […] There is to be no moral stipulation attached to it whatsoever.

But there was a more possessive side of the relationship, which was also in evidence:

We had a bad row (trying my hardest not to let him know how much I thought his London lot were worthless!) […] I sound like a mamma looking after her child’s future and it strikes myself as laughable.

It seems Ruth was not impressed with Michael’s plan to provide Wilf with financial assistance and he was forced to defend his scheme in the next letter:

The charge that I am encouraging ‘tramp & child’ behaviour by him I don’t think holds […] I really am a socialist at heart and I see things from an odd angle, if I were older than Wilf in every sense I might feel turned to take your stand – as it is I can only see him as a level with me […] I can tell how sanguine I am of his painting […] no limits to art, therefore even perhaps Wilf – my gesture at this moment might make this clearer.

The earliest letters, of 1933-4, were ostensibly written to discuss plans for Tippett’s Robin Hood Folk Opera – a socialist interpretation of the Robin Hood story to be performed by the ironstone mining community of Boosbeck, near Middlesbrough. During his first visit to the village Wilf stayed with one of the miners, Tom Batterbee, in his little terraced house, along with his wife Selina and their twelve children. Tom received great praise from Tippett in a 1989 interview:

He had a natural tenor voice and sang Danny Boy in the pubs […] Tom Batterbee, he was a lovely figure.

Batterbee was earmarked for the lead role of Robin Hood, but he was a self-taught singer who learned John McCormack songs by singing along to the gramophone. According to the letters Tom had trouble reading music for the performance:

If Tom is going to be a great difficulty as Robin it may be necessary to change him – but I’ve made a very easy part purposely. I leave all the casting to you unconditionally […] though I’d love to have Tom.

Tippet’s score of a folk song for the miners of Boosbeck.

While working with the miners in Boosbeck, Wilf and Tippett’s relationship blossomed. Having worked together on the Robin Hood Folk Opera, the two men subsequently collaborated on numerous other socialist-inspired productions. These included Tippett’s 1935 agitprop play War Ramp in which Wilf acted the part of the lead soldier and a 1937 setting of William Blake’s A Song of Liberty, which is a call to revolution. (Tippett renounced Marxist politics at the end of the 1930s, while Wilf’s political passions burned brightly throughout his long life.)  

In another of the Middlesbrough letters, dated July 1937, Tippett pours out his heart about the Civil War raging in Spain. He appeals to Ruth for funds to help Trotskyist ‘comrades in distress’:

I’ve had an urgent appeal about Spain from Anarchist-Bol[shevik]-Leninist sources, which I feel duty bound to hand on personally to you on the off chance you might see eye to eye with us over this & help in a small way financially […] The repression against the left elements is very bitter – the Bol-Leninists proper, a handful, are in the worst plight, because they are hunted down by the Russian secret police agents that are now rife in Spain […] The appeal is for purists to feed these people in hiding – very grim affair. What do you feel about it? I want to pass some money on from England through channels of our own, to these comrades in distress.

Forgotten Ballets.

From 1935, Tippett and Wilf were campaigning together under the slogan ‘international working-class solidarity means peace.’ At this time they came into contact with Margaret Barr who had recently brought her Dance Drama Group to London. Barr was a pioneer of British modern dance and a protégé of the great Martha Graham, who she trained under in New York. Barr established herself as a leading figure in British modern dance choreography during her residency at Dartington Hall in the early 1930s. In 1935 she moved to London where the Dance Drama Group performed regularly at venues such as the Unity Theatre and the Embassy Theatre.

One of Margaret Barr’s dancers at Dartington Hall.

Tippett and Wilf were part of London’s left-wing arts community, and it was through groups such as Alan Bush’s Workers Music Association that they met Barr, who became a major influence on Wilf. Her Dance Dramas were radical in style and were built around social and political narratives. She trained Wilf to become one of her small group of dancers, and by 1936 he was performing regularly with the group. Barr left Britain at the outbreak of WW2 and eventually became a prominent choreographer in Australia, her adopted country. A collection of Margaret Barr’s papers, held in the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, revealed additional fascinating details of this story.

Programe found in the Margaret Barr collection in the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

For example, Tippett was named as the ‘musical advisor’ to Margaret Barr’s group in a series of programmes found in Sydney, which also show that Tippett wrote music for two of Barr’s Dance Dramas – compositions that had been completely lost to the record. Discovering that Tippett had written this forgotten music for his great love Wilf to dance to was quite a revelation.

Anyone who has studied Tippett’s autobiography will know that his recollection of dates and events from the 1930s can be rather sketchy, but even so, the omission of this whole episode is most curious. Did Tippett intentionally omit these compositions from his list of works due to the pain of the doomed relationship? Or did he simply consider these two works – The Miners (Colliery) (1936) and Dance of Two with Chorus (Epithalamium) (1937) – to be of minor significance? Sadly, the scores were not found in the archive, but I found two references to them in a 1951 book on modern ballet. The first highlights Tippett’s innovative scoring:

Michael Tippett contributed an interesting experimental score: his music for Dance for Two with chorus was arranged for a very odd collection of wood blocks, tin cans, etc.

The second description mirrors the conflicted nature of Wilf and Tippett’s relationship and the sexual tensions which were never fully resolved:

The theme was the conflict of two different attitudes to love: It showed the misery caused by a narrow puritanical attitude, and the happiness and fulfilment achieved when man is able to integrate the physical and the spiritual sides of his nature in a many-sided relationship.

Wilf’s bi-sexual nature and his ultimate rejection of Tippett’s desire for a more permanent relationship dominated this period in the composer’s life. He would write the following in his 1991 autobiography: ‘I clung to this feeling that Wilf really would accept […] Wilf certainly wanted it but there were blockages caused by the age-old problem of to what extent gender, sex and love corresponded’.

Despite the absence of these two ‘ballets’ from the composer’s official catalogue of work, it is very interesting that the discovery also links Tippett to his contemporary Edmund Rubbra, who had composed the music for most of Barr’s Dance Dramas during her Dartington Hall period. In fact, Rubbra wrote the music for the original Dartington Hall versions of these two productions (1933-4) and Tippett wrote new music for the updated London versions. It is also a feather in Tippett’s cap that he was composing for this type of modern dance many years before his American contemporary, Aaron Copland, collaborated with Barr’s mentor Martha Graham to create his 1944 masterpiece Appalachian Spring.

Perhaps the real significance of the discovery though, is how it impacts our understanding of Tippett’s personal life, for it reveals another creative collaboration with his lover, Wilfred Franks – and a pivotal moment in their love story. Wilf’s dance partner in Barr’s group was a young woman called Meg Masters, a talented artist of mixed Indian/British heritage, who Wilf later described as ‘a beautiful Indian dancer’. A programme, found at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, revealed that Meg, whose stage name was Margarita Medina, choreographed Tippett’s 1939 Symphony of Youth at Brockwell Park in south London – shortly after Wilf broke Tippett’s heart by announcing that he intended to marry Meg. The irony for Tippett must have been bitter: these experimental compositions were created for his lover to perform, yet it was while dancing to these very same works that Wilf fell in love with Meg.

Meg Masters, photo shared by her daughter Karen.

Margaret Barr is virtually forgotten in Tippett’s autobiography – in fact she only appears in his dreams. Wilf, Meg and Margaret make a strange, but rather haunting, appearance in a 1939 dream which Tippett recounts in the book:

A performance of a show is going on downstairs somewhere – one of Margaret Barr’s group. I am included. I go downstairs to find a costume […] I am told that it is Meg Masters who has charge of these particular costumes […] I decide I shall have to go up and find out from her, though it worries me  very much as I had firmly decided not to go to her so soon etc. since Wilf taking up with her and my retirement into myself.

A Late Reunion. 

The Tippett/Franks love story is forever marked in time by Tippett’s musical compositions, some lost forever, and others discarded as juvenilia by the composer. But the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 and the slow movement of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra were directly linked to the story by Tippett himself and both are regarded as being amongst his finest and most beautifully moving works.

Tippett’s music of the 1930s has sometimes been overshadowed by his later work, but during this youthful time when he fell in love and embraced radical left-wing politics, his compositions often demonstrated the exuberance and verve of an artist who had recently found his musical voice. Describing one early piece in a letter to Ruth Pennyman, the composer wrote ‘I think you’ll like it very much for its vigour and gaiety’.

Wilf Franks photographed by Danyel Gilgan at the Linthorpe pub in Middlesbrough, 1994.

During the interval of the recent London Symphony Orchestra performance of Tippett’s final major work, The Rose Lake, BBC Radio Three played his Piano Sonata No. 1, dedicated to his dear friend Francesca Allinson. This 1938 composition provided a lovely counter-balance to the late 1995 piece and highlighted the extraordinary creative longevity of Tippett’s career.

The Rose Lake also has a significance to the story of Wilf and Tippett’s relationship, for it was at a 1995 performance of the recently premiered piece that the two old men last saw each other. Grandad was 87 years old when my parents took him up to Newcastle City Hall to hear Tippett’s new work. At the end of the performance, after receiving applause, the 90-year-old composer came out into the audience and embraced his old love for the very last time.

The author wishes to thank Charmaine Foley for searching through the archive in Sydney and to Meirion Bowen and Karen Archer for their support with the project. Thanks also to the Will Trustees of the Tippett Estate for permission to quote from the letters and writings of Michael Tippett. Tippett’s letters to Ruth Pennyman were found in 2015 by the curatorial team from Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

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 five years researching the life of his late grandfather, Wilf Franks, whose alternative view of life had a profound effect on Michael Tippett. His book, based on the life of his grandfather, will be published in late 2019.