Born in 1905 in London, Michael Tippett did not embrace the idea of being a composer until much later on in his life. He did not come from a musical background;piano lessons from a local teacher, singing in the church choir and finally hearing an orchestral concert in Leicester, must have sparked that desire. He went to the Royal College of Music in London in 1923 to study Piano and Composition and whilst there he relished the vast musical creativity around him.
He left the RCM in 1928 and moved to Surrey where he taught French and conducted for a choral society. This made him enough money to enable him to continue with composition, but after a concert of his first works in 1930, he felt he needed more guidance, so enlisted the help of his former teacher R.O. Morris to develop his counterpoint skills. This study resulted in the first works of his creative maturity - the String Quartet No. 1 (1935) and Piano Sonata No. 1 (1936-7).
Tippett had been deeply interested in social and political issues since a young age and events such as the First World War, the Depression and mass unemployment affected him profoundly. He manifested his sentiments with direct action - he became involved in political radicalism, organised the South London Orchestra of Unemployed Musicians and directed two choirs sponsored by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. He went to work with unemployed miners in the North of England for a time and at the onset of World War II, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector.
He became musical director of Morley College in 1940 and remained there until 1951. Here, he urged the revival of the music of Purcell, one of his major influences along with Beethoven, folk music, jazz and negro spirituals. All of these styles can be seen combined in his music. His beliefs - social equality and pacifism are equally represented.
Tippett left the college and decided to concentrate on composition - his first symphony was completed in 1945 and he began work on his first opera "The Midsummer Marriage". All of this helped to promote his identity on an international scale and much of his music was recorded from the 1960s onwards. Later in life, he received many honours - a CBE in 1959, a knighthood in 1966; he became a Companion of Honour in 1979 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1983; he is also one of the recipients of the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
Tippett remained active in composition and conducting his own works throughout his eighties, and his ninetieth birthday was celebrated by a month-long festival at the Barbican concluding with the premiere of his last major composition, "The Rose Lake". In November 1996 the Stockholm Concert Hall mounted the largest retrospective ever of Tippett's concert music. Tippett fell ill with pneumonia shortly after arriving there, was brought home and died peacefully on January 8, 1998.
The influence of classical and baroque models can be clearly seen in the number of "variations" he composed on works by early composers such as Monteverdi, Handel and Corelli and also in the instrumentation of some of his works (he uses Harpsichords and recorders for example). The use of counterpoint which he struggled to aquire early on, is used most vividly in works such as "Double Concerto for String Orchestra" as well as his love of simple folk tunes and complex rhythms taken from jazz. His most celebrated piece "A Child of our Time" displays all of the above and also demonstrates his keen committment to social issues - namely in this instance, the fear of repression and injustice in the immediate pre-war period.
Recognised as a major Twentieth century British composer, on the scale of Britten or Vaughan Williams, his published repertoire today is vast and his works continue to be performed around the world.
Selected published / recorded repertoire
- String Quartet No. 1 1934-35, revised 1943
- Concerto for Double String Orchestra 1938-39
- Fantasia on a Theme of Handel for piano and orchestra 1939-41
- A Child of Our Time for soloists SATB, chorus & orchestra 1939-41
- Five Negro Spirituals for unaccompanied chorus SATB 1939-41
- String Quartet No. 2 1941-42
- Fanfare No. 1 for 4 horns, 3 trumpets & 3 trombones 1943
- The Weeping Babe for soprano solo and chorus SATB 1944
- Symphony No. 1 1944-45
- Preludio al Vespro di Monteverdi for organ 1946
- String Quartet No. 3 1945-46
- Suite in D (Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles) for orchestra 1948
- The Heart's Assurance for high voice and piano 1950-51
- The Midsummer Marriage opera in three acts 1947-52
- Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli for string orchestra 1953
- Fanfare No. 2 for four trumpets 1953
- Four Inventions for descant and treble recorders 1954
- Concerto for Piano and Orchestra 1953-55
- Bonny at Morn for unison voices and recorders 1956
- Four Songs from the British Isles for chorus SATB 1956
- Symphony No. 2 1956-57
- Lullaby for alto solo or counter tenor and SSTTB or small chorus 1959
- 'Words for Music Perhaps' for speaking voices and chamber ensemble 1960
- King Priam opera in three acts 1958-61
- Songs for Achilles for tenor and guitar 1961
- Sonata No. 2 for piano 1962
- Concerto for Orchestra 1962-63
- Prelude, Recitative and Aria for flute, oboe and harpsichord or piano 1964
- The Vision of Saint Augustine for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra 1965
- The Shires Suite for chorus and orchestra 1965-70
- The Knot Garden opera in three acts 1966-70
- In Memoriam Magistri for flute, clarinet and string quartet 1971
- Symphony No. 3 for soprano and orchestra 1970-72
- Sonata No. 3 for piano 1972-73
- The Ice Break opera in three acts 1973-76
- Symphony No. 4 1976-77
- String Quartet No. 4 1977-78
- Triple Concerto for violin, viola, cello and orchestra 1978-79
- The Mask of Time for soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor and baritone soloists,chorus and orchestra 1980-82
- The Blue Guitar for solo guitar 1982-83
- Sonata No. 4 for piano 1984
- New Year opera in three acts 1986-88
- New Year Suite for orchestra 1989
- Byzantium for soprano and orchestra 1989-90
- String Quartet No. 5 1990-91
- Triumph for concert band 1992
- The Rose Lake a song without words for orchestra 1991-93
- Caliban's Song for baritone and piano 1995
- Suite: The Tempest for tenor, baritone and ensemble (arranged by Meirion Bowen) 1961; arr. 1995
n.b. This is not a full list of Tippett's works.
KEY: S = Soprano; A = Alto; T = Tenor; B = Bass.
Source: Michael Tippett official website.