Only Make-Believe

Article excerpt

With the publication of recent studies of the composer's music, GERAINT LEWIS considers the durability of Sir Michael Tippett within the pantheon of British composers

Tippett studies Edited by David Clarke

(Cambridge, 1999); xv, 232pp; L40.

ISBN 0 521 59205 4.

Tippett: A child of our time

Kenneth Gloag

Cambridge Music Handbooks

(Cambridge, 1999); ix, 111pp; L27.50 / L9.95 pbk. ISBN 0 521 59228 3 / 0 521 59753 6.

IN JANUARY 1995, the late Derrick Puffett contributed an article to this periodical in which he suggested, quite sympathetically, that the ninety-year-old Tippett had, tragically, lived too long. Dr Puffett comprehensively wrote-off most of his post-Priam output as a sad falling-away from the musical glories of the 1940s and most of the 50s, and charted what he saw as the decline of both man and musician. Ironically, the article itself gradually went off the rails - as judicious and balanced criticism degenerated into gratuitous side-swiping unworthy of such a distinguished scholar. Nevertheless, in the fullness of time, the core of Puffett's critical perspective, already shared by others, may well be confirmed and generally accepted. But is it actually too early - given Tippett's extraordinary creative longevity - to attempt such a general evaluation? And what convincing critical and analytical methodologies and criteria can be used to reach meaningful judgements in this field?

The new Tippett studies volume from Cambridge University Press touches both directly and indirectly upon such and similar questions. Definitive answers are perhaps hardly to be expected from a disparate series of shortish essays and their being few and far between here in no way invalidates the venture. The unevenness of the volume, however, may reflect its origins in a series of academic papers delivered at the 1995 International Tippett Conference held at Newcastle University, which was expertly organised by David Clarke, and where Tippett attended the concerts but understandably not the lectures! Dr Clarke has gone on to edit this book, and in so doing has contrived, in a roughly chronological survey, to present a selection of the conference papers alongside newly-commissioned articles.

The lecture sessions were sympathetically chaired by Professors Ian Kemp and Arnold Whittall, and Whittall himself contributes the most valuable chapter in this new volume - an illuminating study of relevant pitch-centres in King Priam (1958-61) as related to the opera's dramatic flow. He writes with his customary lucidity, and succeeds in turning diverse analytical methods to his own perceptive ends. One of the problems he confronts constructively is the difficulty presented to analysts by Tippett's 'post-tonal' language (for want of a better term). In Priam, however, the music is often rooted in specific tonal centres (something Tippett never really abandoned), and Whittall brings to vivid life the tonalatonal struggles involved - and sees these as part of the opera's dramatic construct.

Another enlightening essay - which untangles a similar network of tensions - is Alastair Borthwicks treatment of the Third Piano Sonata (197273), a work considered by many to be a landmark in twentieth-century piano writing. This essay manages convincingly to uncover a series of thematic interconnections, and presents analytical conclusions which seem to emanate naturally from the sound of the music itself - in other words, he has 'heard' it well and conveys this understanding in his writing. Each section of the sonata is rigorously constructed, and Tippett's inspiration is alight throughout. To begin to understand how this feat is achieved in technical terms can only deepen an appreciation of the music's gleaming and coruscating surface.

These two essays read extremely well. Others which fall more or less into the same category include a fascinating study of the folk-song origins of much of Tippett's early music - concentrating on the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1937-38) - by David Clarke himself, and an investigation of the influence of the composer's contrapuntal studies with RO Morris in the early 1930s - with specific reference to the Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli (1953) - by Anthony Pople. …