Tippett’s Late Nightingale

Listening to Michael Tippett’s fifth and final string quartet.

Two different authors have written about Michael Tippett on this website. Dan Gilgan has told the story of the relationship between the composer and his grandfather Wilf Franks, while Will Frampton argued that Tippett is a composer for our times.

But as for myself, I haven’t spent a huge amount of time listening to his music. So with this in mind, I recently explored the set of his complete string quartets recorded by the Heath Quartet live at Wigmore Hall. It’s excellent.

I was particularly drawn to the fifth and final quartet, which Tippett composed at the age of 86. Partly because I have a fascination with ‘late’ works – their sense of a life of lessons learned, and the often condensed form they take, as if revealing a composer’s creative essence. Also, the two-movement structure of Tippett’s fifth – fast and slow – is shared with Rubbra’s late fourth quartet, which is one of my favourites.

As you may know, Oliver Soden’s biography of Tippett was published last year to a level of media buzz and wide acclaim that was pleasantly surprising to see for a book about a composer. I haven’t read it yet, but Soden also wrote the booklet notes for the Heath Quartet recordings, and he reveals that the score of the fifth quartet is headed by a quotation from a French folksong: ‘sing nightingale sing, you who have a happy heart’.

This wistful line might prompt us to hear mimicry of birdsong in the music. But it’s also worth noting that Tippett’s orchestral work The Rose Lake, composed in the years following this quartet, referred to its Senegalese subject ‘singing’ too. So perhaps there’s a deeper meaning here.

Something ‘sings’ when it exists most naturally, and is at ease. Most natural to the quartet is the spectral bloom of bowed strings, and that is very much Tippett’s approach to this piece. He steers clear of the thornier patches of modern quartet writing, with their pinches and scratches. Even a technique as familiar as pizzicato is relegated to a very minor role.

The quartet will sing then, but this is not a solo song. In fact, the first movement seems to be driven by the dynamics of how its voices come together.

It begins with urgent chords, and we enter into a struggle for these combined forces to stabilise. It’s as if there’s a ‘critical mass’ principle: when playing all together, the quartet generates excess energy that sends the music into jagged rhythms, frantic scurrying.

But taken apart, the ensemble finds calmer spaces. A quieter recurring theme is a trilling violin tune in a major key – perhaps the first suggestion of the nightingale’s virtuoso song – and it’s answered by tentative double-stopping on the cello.

This sense of instability is also built into Tippet’s harmonic language, which is neither stridently dissonant, nor tends toward tonal consonances, but probes a fascinating middle-ground of subtler clashes. As though fragments of harmony have been fired together, opposing shards fused.

In the end, there’s no resolution to this movement’s internal energy, and the emphatic repeated chords of its final bars only jeer at us in bald defiance.

In contrast, the second movement begins with quiet unease. Then a gentle, sky-high violin melody takes wing, spacious and free. With a delicate staccato descent and a mournful slide, it certainly suggests birdsong. Now gravity has dispersed, and much of this movement flies free of the lower registers, twittering above.

Later, with a beautifully strange harmonic shift, Tippett finds a series of chords that gradually expand and blossom in expressive richness – they stretch out into space like a rhetorical question. It’s a magical moment, and, you immediately sense, a significant one.

This passage returns towards the end of the movement, heard several times in succession and leavened with the chattering descent-and-slide figure. The quartet has truly learned to sing now, and doesn’t want to stop – the music acquires an almost ritual quality, with the song leading us on. It is remarkably beautiful.

The end of this pageant is not a bed of quiet consonance, but a final burst of splendour, louder than before. In a radiant flash, the critical mass achieves its final fusion – an enriched harmonic core. Perhaps, in Tippett’s world, this is the closest we get to a string quartet’s  ‘happy heart’.

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