Only Make-Believe

By Lewis, Geraint | Musical Times, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Only Make-Believe


Lewis, Geraint, Musical Times


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. The latter is often densely argued and casts new light on a work which - along with the Double Concerto - is now part of the repertoire.

Such popular acceptance interestingly highlights the security of Tippett's reputation as based on his pre-1966 output. Had he died in 1968, however, at the same age as Britten, his music would probably have suffered a considerable degree of neglect until the 1980s (apart from the handful of'famous' pieces) - but would then have been gradually restored to something like its present status, along similar lines to Vaughan Williams's current rehabilitation, and Elgar's before him - though Britten, intriguingly, never suffered any significant neglect after his death in 1976. If a period of neglect may now be inevitable, it will surely only affect the works written after 1966 (many already seriously neglected). With only A child of our time, The midsummer marriage, Double Concerto, Corelli fantasia, Piano Concerto, Boyhoods end, The heart's assurance, two symphonies, three string quartets, two piano sonatas, Concerto for Orchestra, King Priam and The vision of St Augustine to his credit, Tippett would stand out clearly as one of the century's greatest British composers. But his extended career and quite dramatic shifts of style tended to blur and postpone any attempt at a crystalline perception of his achievement - for all sorts of reasons - and simultaneously kept him at the forefront of public and critical attention virtually until the end of his life.

Another new essay in Tippett studies which tries to tackle this issue very generally is a touchingly personal survey by Wilfrid Mellers (the only writer to contribute to all three composite volumes on Tippett conceived or published during the composer's lifetime - the 1965 Symposium (ed. Kemp), the 1985 Celebration (ed. Lewis), and the present volume), charting his initial impressions of the immediate post-war music as coloured by his friendship with the engaging 'maverick' young composer, and outlining his unreserved love for and understanding of this life-enhancing early output - positive feelings fully retained to this day. Reading between the lines, however, it would seem that as the friendship gradually waned, so did Mellers's engagement with the music (though it is perhaps worth remembering here that he also became something of a maverick composer himself, as well as an academic!), and he puts his reservations honestly on the table. He was unconvinced by The knot garden (1966-69) and for him The ice break (1973-76) represents the lowest point in the creative curve (as it seems to do for so many commentators and critics). But he arrives at a fairly glowing assessment of New Year (1985-88) as a radiant work partly recapturing the early rapture. This is not a rigorous academic paper, but it speaks with authentic and flavourful opinion and understanding, and is valuable for that.

The essays which stand squarely as transcripts of papers delivered at the Newcastle Conference are generally less valuable than most of those specially written for this book, and many of them seem not to have been much improved by the rite-of-passage from spoken to written word. Christopher Mark's stodgy attempt to elucidate Tippett's use of sequence fails dismally to establish any convincing linguistic parameters or to present truly illuminating examples, and would have been best left in the lecture room. Similarly, Kenneth Gloag takes a long time to say remarkably little of substance about the pivotal stylistic relationship between Tippett and Stravinsky, and his tonal explications of the openings of Stravinsky's Symphony in C and Symphony in three movements are debatable to say the least.

Tippett himself was characteristically dismissive of academic analysis - deriding it as 'so much make-believe' - and it is easy enough to understand that such exercises - after the event - had no relevance or interest for him. Genuine compositional insight as a result of such analysis, however, is potentially of enormous value to the student, the performer and the listener, but over the last twenty years or so the discipline has become such a self-perpetuating academic growth-industry that there is now a genuine danger that its published proponents fatally fail to see the wood for the trees. This volume of Tippett studies treads a dangerous path between analysis which enlightens and analysis which deadens.

Peter Wright poignantly dedicates his chapter on the Fifth String Quartet (1990-91) to Derrick Puffett's memory in the hope that had he read the analysis he might have revised his judgement of the piece. The hope is forlorn, I fear, for pages of conscientious but mechanical analysing fail to suggest at any point what genuinely makes this mesmerising music tick or to bring alive in the reader's mind its moments of unforgettable magic. In fact, I believe that this treatment would sadly have confirmed Puffett's view. In this instance, careful dissection of the flower's petals has failed to capture its potent scent. HE same seems sadly true of the new volume on A child of our time by Kenneth Gloag in the burgeoning Cambridge Music Handbooks series, a very thorough attempt to elucidate an acknowledged masterwork - with all that that entails. At a concluding stage Gloag suggests that the work is virtually the nearest thing to academic virgin territory:

In terms of popular perception A Child of Our Time has maintained its place in the repertoire and has enjoyed several successful recordings. However, from the point of view of informed scholarship the work remains largely untouched, a problem it shares with Tippetts music in general.

This is an interesting statement in view of the detailed, magisterial study of the work contained in Ian Kemp's major book of 1984, its treatment by Arnold Whittall in his indispensable 1982 volume Britten and Tippett: studies in themes and techniques (both volumes to which Gloag, regularly refers) and the source material unearthed by Meirion Bowen in Music of the angels (1980). Are we therefore to conclude that these writings do not constitute 'informed scholarship'?

The framework of this new handbook is perfectly reasonable, but as in his article in Tippett studies, Gloag writes laboriously and tries too strenuously to fit his treatment into the context of an existing theory - in this case Julia Kristeva's seminal writing on intertextuality'. This is a perfectly straightforward literary concept which any intelligent study of A child of our time should contain as a matter of course - but without the attendant verbiage. The pity here is that Gloag doesn't find anything particularly revealing or new to say about Tippett, Eliot and Jung or - in his musical application of the notion - Tippett and Bach/Handel.

At the heart of the book lies a long chapter of pedestrian synopsis and analysis testifying to the assimilation of the music from the page but not, unfortunately, through the ear. It flickers momentarily to life in returning frequently to the question of Tippett's success in integrating, or isolating, the celebrated Negro spirituals within the fabric of his oratorio. This is also the main theme of the succeeding chapter on the musical language both chapters ultimately dealing with problems of transition, integration and the reconciliation of opposites. Gloag's conclusions, however, seem curiously half-hearted, and after reading the book as a whole one is left with remarkably little sense of having 'encountered' or experienced the work in the writing or indeed of having been in the company of an author who has anything profound to say about it.

Tippett studies contains at least five or six chapters (out of ten in total) which every Tippett specialist will want to read - but at L40 is surely a book for libraries only The Child of our time handbook is, for the Tippett student, at best an appendix to Ian Kemp's Tippett: the man and his music (an OUP paperback), which remains the essential starting point and much more. Dedicated Tippett scholars may find the handbook worth its paperback cover price but must be prepared for some frustrating reading along the way On present evidence Professor Kemp's book will remain for some time the touchstone for all who wish to study Tippett's music properly Kemp is both stimulating and humane, perceptive and passionate without losing critical balance. And, unlike virtually all his younger counterparts, he actually writes beautifully and lucidly. A handful of his marvellously crafted sentences can say far more about the music than so many chapters of undigestible jargon - and what Kemp has to say is manifestly not make-believe! We can only hope that he will find the time to round-off his book with a consideration of the final decade of Tippett's prodigious oeuvre. But even he may sensibly feel that it is still too soon to pronounce a final judgement.

[Author Affiliation]

Geraint Lewis is the editor of the symposium

Michael Tippett OM: a celebration.

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