Monday, July 28, 2014

Who Else Likes the Music of Sir Michael Tippett?

Glowing reviews of a posthumous recording of Sir Michael Tippett's final composition The Rose Lake called it a radiant, accessible piece, crowning the career of a venerable maverick composer whose imagination seemed to grow more fertile with age.  But then Sir Michael Tippett disappeared from discourse.  Even in 2005, centennial of his birth, all I saw of note on the internet were a staging of his oratorio A Child of Our Time and a sneering article warning us to avoid any celebration of the composer whose music is best forgotten. 

How could he fall so suddenly?  I'd received a Tippett newsletter for years, telling of planned concerts and productions of his operas.  I'd been to Houston Grand Opera for the premiere of his opera New Year, where the excited little lady who gave the pre-show talk promised that anyone disenchanted with recent HGO premieres by minimalist composers Adams and Glass would be delighted by Tippett, a "maximalist."  I'd read an issue of Musical America devoted to his works, and two of at least three books about him published in the 80s and 90s.  Atlanta's premier classical record store brought in the first two CDs of a projected series of Tippett's complete works -- but the series did not continue after his death.

How could he have been so fascinating and important one decade, passé the next?  It seems reasonable to think that either we were all wrong before, or the world is missing something now.

The truth, I'm afraid, may be found in the offhand judgment of a musician friend.  Tenor McCarrell Ayers told me that he'd sung Tippett for church (probably the Magnificat).  "It was all right," he said, his voice trailing off a bit, "but in the end, it just was more trouble than it was worth." 

[Photo:Double Concerto my intro to MT, still my favorite]

I know what McCarrell meant by Tippett's "trouble."  I bought the score for his 1965 cantata Vision of St. Augustine to play it myself because no recordings were available.   But I gave up after page one.  Triplets are okay, but doublets? quintuplets?  Tied?  With dotted rhythms?  Grouped across the bars?  When a recording came out at last, I listened eagerly, but couldn't follow the music in the score.

Other snippets of Tippett's music printed in Ian Kemp's biography Tippett: The Composer and His Music (Oxford Press, 1987) look almost as daunting, but I know the sounds, and they are worth the trouble.  Here are a few favorites:

Tippett's second symphony begins as a classical head-banger, an ominous double-bass chugging along under the importunate chatter of high strings -- before we lift off into spacious meditation.  (I like the first symphony, too, a friendlier piece.)

His biggest hit is A Child of Our Time, an abstracted retelling of the event we remember as Kristallnacht.  When Tippett wrote the piece, Hitler's regime was spreading its influence across the channel.  The text combines Jungian theory ("The world has turned to its dark side... I must embrace my shadow") with the structure of a Bach oratorio.  Where Bach would insert his arrangement of a familiar Lutheran hymn to sum up a segment of the story, Tippett used Negro Spirituals.  It's a great idea, though it means that we have a chorus of German Jews singing "Nobody knows the trouble I seen, Lord, nobody knows like Jesus."  Excerpts are viewable on YouTube.

The Concerto for Double String Orchestra begins with a jaunty theme, interlaced with counter themes and inversions.  As many times as I've heard it, I'm still surprised at any given point in the piece by what I hear in the layers of the texture.  The slow movement, sweet and melancholy, also takes us to some surprising places of arid, stringent dissonance before coming home.  The finale feels joyous without losing that tinge of melancholy.  Just before the piece ends, a new theme rises up out of the mix and plays like a benediction over all.  (By the way, in all my years of symphony-going and public-radio- listening, this is the only piece of Tippett's that I've ever heard outside my own home, and that was just last year.)  I find many postings of this piece on YouTube.

My composition teacher Dr. James Sclater, who introduced me to Tippett's music,  admired Tippett's brazenness.  "He does just whatever he wants to!" In his copy of the score for Tippett's Concerto for Orchestra, Dr. Sclater had marked more than a dozen musical "gestures" in the first movement, each in a different tempo, for a different subgrouping of instruments, to see how Tippett mixed and matched those in a kind of mosaic.  Instead of building to a big finale, the movement simply stopped mid-line.  Dr. Sclater was amused and amazed.  I enjoy the effect, too.

That mosaic effect was something Tippett developed for his great opera King Priam.  In the first new article about Tippett that I've seen in years, Tippett's longtime partner and musical champion Meirion Bowen writes in The Guardian  "How King Priam Saved Michael Tippett."  Tippett's reputation had been that of a fuzzy-headed intellectual and musical dilettante, until the success of Priam in 1963.  

I've seen the opera on video, and I've listened many times to David Atherton's hit recording, and I can attest to the interesting effect Tippett achieves by fragmenting the orchestra into subgroups, each assigned to a different character.  Two moments stand out.   At the end of Act One, after Hector's slaying of the Greek hero Patroclus, Troy's exultant victory anthem is interrupted by a spine-tingling war-cry from the Greek camp offstage, led by the voice of Achilles.  I was lucky to see Tippett's handwritten score under glass in the British museum, opened to that exact moment.  The other beautiful moment is accompanied just by guitar.  King Priam, disguised as a beggar, enters the tent of Achilles to beg for the body of his slain son Hector, and both of the men sing for their lost loved ones. 

Some other pieces I'm fond of, even while I shake my head a la Ronald Reagan ("There he goes again!").  My mentor Frank Boggs sang Tippett's spirituals under Robert Shaw, and tells how the composer spoke to the chorale during a rehearsal.  "He spoke half an hour," Frank says. "We had no idea what he was talking about."  That's how Tippett was in some of his writings, all about archetypes and collective unconscious.  Along those lines, there's his first opera Midsummer Marriage with its allusions to Shakespeare and Mendelsohn.  Besides the wedding couple, there's a mechanic, a businessman, and a secretary, who encounter "Elders" (read "fairies").    The libretto loses me long before the wedding couple complete separate allegorical journeys on symbolic staircases up into intellect and down into feeling before they're "married" in one personality with something involving a Hindu god.  Someone gets shot.  I've never made it awake to that part of the recording.

Tippett's massive Mask of Time purports to take us from creation (Genesis and Big Bang) to annihilation (nuclear explosion) with texts by scientists and poets.  The booklet with the CD contains a picture of a little Latin American Indian child looking askance at the wild-haired Tippett crouching a few feet away from her, evidently trying to engage her in conversation.  I enjoy many parts of it, and I enjoy the variety in it, and I just have to smile at the composer's chutzpah.

I had mixed feelings when I saw the premiere of New Year.   Though the libretto takes us in a space ship to another planet, the central action takes place in a single-room apartment in a slum in an unnamed American city where a white social worker, half-sister to a black delinquent, is afraid to step outside to face the neediness of her violent society. The space ship, the time travel, the duet at a crystal fountain on another planet, all serve to give her the courage to open that door.   I remember her one-room apartment open like a dollhouse on rollers center stage, and I remember her hand on the door.  I remember how lovely the garden music was on that other planet.  And I remember one man saying to his neighbor at intermission,  "You know, my company's paying for this s--t."

Ice Break and Knot Garden, two of Tippett's other operas, are both intriguing in outline, but harsh.  Still, the orchestral gesture for the ice breaking on a Russian river -- and metaphorical ice breaking to free up our spiritual lives -- is etched in my memory still, many years after I last heard it.

Is Tippett's music, in the end, "more trouble than it's worth?"  Interviewed for a BBC tribute to Tippett in the week after the composer's death. pianist Paul Crossley admitted that the sonatas were highly idiomatic and hard to learn, but also "fresh and original."   A young composer tells how Tippett helped him when his own father told him "you haven't the talent" for composing. Tippett told the young man, "You do something because you want to, not because you're good at it."  Sir Peter Hall applauded Tippett's underrated "sense of dramatic space."  Asked once about his harmony, Tippett replied, "But there isn't any."   

Since Tippett is often compared unfavorably to his friend Benjamin Britten, I'm interested in this summation from a page that I tore out of The New Yorker sometime in the late 80s: While Britten composed "with sovereign economy," Tippett's work is "boundless with waste motion, with a wildness of search and frequent frustration.  But his is the larger -- the much deeper -- venture."  Both composers were gay in a time when laws forbade openness, but Tippett wasn't one to hide.  (He was a pacifist during World War II, and went to jail for it.)   This author relates the personal backstory to their music:
  • To put it crassly, until the death-haunted salutation of [Britten's final opera Death in Venice], what Britten knew and told of love retained a cautionary, feline guardedness.  Out of the same homoerotic source Tippett has harvested an utter liberality of defenseless love, and it is exactly that impassioned vulnerability which makes A Child of Our Time a thing so much finer than [Britten's] War Requiem.
We don't have to devalue Britten to appreciate Tippett's positive qualities of "utter liberality of defenseless love" and his willingness to think big. 

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