Sir Michael Tippett was born in London in 1905 and spent his childhood in Suffolk, making little contact with music until his teens. Thereafter he studied at the Royal College of Music and from 1928 lived in Oxted, Surrey, teaching French in a preparatory school and conducting a concert and operatic society, which enabled him to spend long periods at composition. In April 1930 an Oxted concert featured his main works to date; but these he afterwards withdrew. He then went for further lessons with R. O. Morris. These proved formative: he developed special skills in counterpoint which propelled him towards the first works of his creative maturity, his String Quartet No. 1 (1935; revised 1944) and Piano Sonata No. 1 (1936-7).
Both during his student days and after, Tippett responded deeply to world events - the First World War, the Depression and mass unemployment. 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. At the same time his aesthetic ideas had crystallised in the course of several informal encounters with T. S. Eliot. The outcome of all this was the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939-41), an impassioned protest against persecution and tyranny and now his most widely performed composition.
Tippett became musical director of Morley College in 1940 and remained there until 1951, giving it a new lease of musical life. The college became the focal point of the revival of Purcell’s music, and Tippett presented and recorded the first performance since Elizabethan times of Tallis’s 40-part motet; much new music featured, and upcoming artists like Alfred Deller, Peter Pears and the Amadeus Quartet, who were later to achieve worldwide fame. Meanwhile, in 1943, he was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for refusing, as a pacifist, to comply with conditions of exemption from active war service. He remained committed to the pacifist cause.
After leaving Morley College, Tippett devoted himself almost entirely to composition, earning a small secondary income from radio talks. He completed his First Symphony in 1945 and then embarked on his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage; like his next three operas, it was first produced by the Royal Opera House. They exerted a considerable influence upon his subsequent symphonies, sonatas, concertos and quartets.
Tippett’s international reputation blossomed from his sixties onwards, partly through a proliferation of recordings of his music. He was especially esteemed in America, and some of his most significant works (such as his Fourth Symphony and The Mask of Time) were US commissions.
Throughout his eighties, Tippett remained exceptionally active, composing, conducting and travelling worldwide. His fifth opera, New Year, commissioned jointly by Houston Grand Opera, Glyndebourne and the BBC, received its première in 1989, was toured all over the UK the following year and the BBC screened their own television production in 1991. Immediately after the opera came Byzantium, for soprano and orchestra (premièred in Chicago in 1991 and repeated the same year at the Proms) and a Fifth String Quartet (1992). His last orchestral work, The Rose Lake, was premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis as part of a two-week long festival celebrating his 90th birthday at the Barbican Centre, London. Subsequently, during a two-month tour of the USA and Canada, Tippett heard this greatly acclaimed work performed eleven times.
Also in 1995, following upon his autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues (1991), his definitive collection of essays, Tippett on Music was published, and he wrote an idiosyncratic contribution to the Purcell tercentenary celebrations, Caliban’s Song, for the BBC.
In November 1997 the Stockholm Concert Hall presented a 12-day Tippett Festival which included all his music except the stage works. Tippett travelled to Stockholm but was taken ill with pneumonia. Although he was able eventually to return to the UK, he never fully recovered and died peacefully at his home in South London on 8 January 1998.
Tippett received many honours and awards; he was made a CBE in 1959, was knighted in 1966, became a Companion of Honour in 1979 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1983; he was a recipient of the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
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