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Tippett, Sir Michael Kemplocked

  • Geraint Lewis

Sir Michael Kemp Tippett (1905–1998)

by Michael Ward, 1972

© Michael Ward / National Portrait Gallery, London

Tippett, Sir Michael Kemp (1905–1998), composer, was born on 2 January 1905 in a London nursing home at 51 Belgrave Road, the second son and younger child of Henry William Tippett (1858–1944), a retired lawyer, and Isabel Clementina Binny Kemp (1880–1969), a novelist and suffragette. His father was of Cornish stock and his mother from Kent. Later in 1905 the family moved from Eastcote, Middlesex, to the village of Wetherden in Suffolk, where they remained until 1919.

Formative years

Tippett's happy childhood in the depths of the English countryside did not include any form of musical training, though he enjoyed singing as a treble in the local church choir. He later recalled that hearing the soldiers singing popular songs as they marched off to the First World War had affected him deeply: at the age of nine or ten he knew intuitively that he wanted to be a composer, even though he had no idea of what this meant in reality. His education from 1914 to 1922 was ironically to delay his formal musical development even though he flourished intellectually. At Brookfield preparatory school, Swanage, Dorset, he distinguished himself with an essay denying the existence of God. He went on to Fettes College, Edinburgh, but found it almost intolerable. Having at least broken the traditional cycle of bullying, he was removed by his parents on admitting to a homosexual involvement with a fellow pupil. He then went as a boarder to Stamford grammar school, Lincolnshire, where he was much happier, though still a notorious character largely on account of his now fully developed atheism. By 1919 the family home and unit had been broken up in the aftermath of the First World War, when financial problems had forced Tippett's parents to move to the hotel they owned near Cannes and thereafter to sell the hotel and live in hotel suites in the south of France and Italy until 1932. Tippett felt orphaned and abandoned as a result, and despite the broadening cultural outlook engendered by these years of foreign holidays and adventurous travelling the emotional scars were deep and long-lasting. Musical matters, however, improved at Stamford, where alongside piano lessons he began to teach himself composition, persuading his parents at length to pay for his studies at the Royal College of Music, London, which he entered in 1923 with few, if any, of the necessary qualifications other than determination and vision.

Apprentice composer

At the Royal College of Music from 1923 to 1928 Tippett studied composition with Charles Wood and C. H. Kitson, conducting with Malcolm Sargent and Adrian Boult, and the piano with Aubin Raymar. The chief value of these years for Tippett was his delayed encounter—often by means of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts—with the great tradition of Western music, most of which was unfamiliar to him. Beethoven immediately became the most profound and lasting influence, and his structural procedures were fortuitously central to Charles Wood's teaching of composition. Wood's long illness and eventual death in 1926 proved a severe blow to Tippett in that C. H. Kitson, to whom he then went, was pedantically unrewarding as a teacher and personally unsympathetic, even scornful, of his compositional aspirations. Sargent was similarly rather patronizing, but Tippett was particularly fortunate in Adrian Boult, who took him under his wing by installing him at his side for weekly orchestral rehearsals, thus enabling him to learn about the orchestra from the inside (he was nicknamed Boult's Darling in the process). An unconventional student, he perhaps not unsurprisingly failed his finals at the first attempt but eventually graduated BMus in 1928.

As a self-confessed late developer Tippett was not deterred in pursuing his compositional destiny by the dazzling brilliance of such already successful contemporaries as Walton, Lambert, Rawsthorne, and—a little later—the precocious Benjamin Britten. He stubbornly ploughed a lonely furrow and never wavered in his self-belief, even when this meant living at virtually subsistence level. In 1929 he settled in Oxted, Surrey, where he conducted a madrigal group, supervised the activities of the amateur Oxted and Limpsfield Players, and became a part-time French teacher at Hazelwood School, Limpsfield. A concert at Oxted in 1930 of his compositional output to date, though notionally successful (and sympathetically reviewed in The Times), prompted him to withdraw the lot and return to study counterpoint at the Royal College of Music with R. O. Morris for eighteen months. He then became increasingly drawn to quasi-political, socially inclined musical activities and gave up teaching to undertake posts as conductor with two amateur choirs in London sponsored by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society and with the South London Orchestra (based at Morley College, with Tippett employed under the aegis of the London county council), drawn from newly unemployed professional musicians. He also helped at work camps for unemployed ironstone miners at Boosbeck, Yorkshire, where in 1933 he composed a folk-song opera Robin Hood (material from which was re-channelled into the suite in D of 1948). Thus strengthened, his left-wing sympathies now drew him towards Trotsky, and in 1935 he briefly joined the Communist Party, abandoning his branch after three months when he failed to convert the members to his own brand of Trotskyism. More significantly, he realized that direct political involvement would distract him from the single-minded pursuit of composition. This now moved into a higher gear with the first performances in 1935 of the first movement of a completed symphony in B♭ (immediately withdrawn) and the string quartet in A. Here at last—in the passionately lyrical slow (third) movement and rhythmically exuberant fugal finale—he detected the sound of his own personal voice for the first time. Following revision in 1943 (replacing the first two movements with a single opening movement) this quartet no. 1 became the first work in Tippett's official canon of compositions and marked the end of his long-drawn-out apprenticeship.

Turmoil and maturity

Tippett's next two works—a piano sonata completed in 1937 and the concerto for double string orchestra of 1938–9—consolidated his early maturity by drawing the fruitful but divergent influences of Beethoven, Elizabethan madrigals, folk-song, and jazz into a compelling individual fusion. Crucial to this emerging creative maturity were two pivotal personal relationships—one, intense and sexual, with the painter Wilfred Franks (later identified by Tippett as 'a major factor underlying the discovery of my own individual musical “voice”'), and the other, passionate but non-sexual, with the musician Francesca Allinson, who shared his love of folk-music in particular. The relationship with Franks came to a troubled end in 1938 when Franks announced that he was to marry, thus precipitating for Tippett a personal crisis which became entangled with a heightened awareness of the political turmoil then drawing Europe inexorably towards a second world war. After an encounter with the Jungian analyst John Layard, Tippett undertook a nine-month period of self-analysis in which he transcribed and analysed his own dreams (transcriptions of which are included in his autobiography Those Twentieth Century Blues of 1994). The outcome was technically the process of ‘individuation’ or rebirth, confirming for Tippett the nature of his homosexuality while simultaneously strengthening his destiny as a creative artist at the possible expense of personal relationships.

A Child of our Time

This turbulent period coincided with the drafting of a libretto for an oratorio triggered by an incident in Paris—the shooting of a German diplomat (vom Rath) by a Polish Jew (Herschel Grynsban)—which led to the Nazi pogrom of the Jews chillingly immortalized as Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938. Tippett at first approached his artistic mentor T. S. Eliot with a view to his writing the text. Eliot's advice on reading the detailed draft he had requested, however, was that Tippett should go on to complete it himself, in that the words were already appropriate for musical setting: adding ‘poetry’ to them would only get in the way of the music. The Second World War finally broke out on 3 September 1939 (three days after Tippett completed his Jungian analysis), and within days he began to compose the music of A Child of our Time. It was completed two years later in 1941, but was put aside with no immediate hope of a performance. This was the first work in which Tippett felt that he was writing from the depths of what Jung called the 'collective unconscious', and it crystallized all his current political, moral, and psychological concerns within a universal framework. It was consciously a modern counterpart of Bach's passions and Handel's Messiah; Tippett discovered in the negro spiritual a living substitute for Bach's Lutheran chorales. The collective emotion thus released gives the score a depth of compassion unique in twentieth-century music. When eventually performed at the Adelphi Theatre, London, in 1944, A Child of our Time belatedly established Tippett at the forefront of the composers of his generation. It became his most frequently performed work internationally.

War and prison

In practical terms the outbreak of war caused Tippett immediate difficulties. His conducting posts in London came to an end and he briefly returned to Hazelwood School to teach classics. A significant chapter opened, however, with his appointment in 1940 as director of music at Morley College, where his concerto for double string orchestra had just been premiered in April. On 15 October 1940 the college was virtually destroyed by a bomb, and Tippett later recalled salvaging from the rubble several expensive volumes of Purcell's music, previously beyond his reach, which he now kept for his own use (Tippett, interview, 1986). (The immediate impact on his music is discernible in the flexible structure and fluid word-setting of the cantata Boyhood's End composed for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten in 1943 and first performed at Morley College.) Tippett's daunting task now was the rebuilding of Morley College's musical activities. This he achieved by strengthening the choir (composing his Two Madrigals for the singers in 1942) and in creating a haven for musical refugees from Europe. These included Mátyás Seiber, Walter Goehr, and Walter Bergmann and three members of what later became the famous Amadeus Quartet. The college was soon established as the innovative hub of London's musical life, promoting concerts notable for their adventurous programmes. At this time Tippett was also at the forefront of the pacifist movement. Back in 1935 he had responded to the Revd Dick Sheppard's postal crusade for peace, and in 1940 he formally joined the Peace Pledge Union. Knowing that his deeply held convictions were likely to bring him into conflict with the authorities, he applied in 1940 for provisional registration as a conscientious objector. When Tippett's case was eventually heard in 1942 he was given non-combatant military duties. He appealed against this decision and was then given conditional registration. On refusing to comply with the conditions Tippett was finally sentenced on 21 June 1943 to three months' imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs (and released for good behaviour a month early). The experience was a watershed in Tippett's public and personal life: for his mother (herself imprisoned a generation earlier for her suffragette beliefs) it was his finest hour. Tippett himself later described the experience as one of 'coming home' and claimed that though he was sufficiently well connected to have escaped imprisonment had he wished, it had been a moral responsibility to take the punishment as a gesture of solidarity with the cause.

Taking stock

On his release from prison Tippett took up the reins at Morley College with renewed vigour. His compositional profile too was now in the ascendant as performers of stature began to champion his works. Phyllis Sellick made the first commercial recording of his music in 1941 when she recorded the piano sonata no. 1, and this attracted considerable critical acclaim. In 1943 the Zorian String Quartet premiered the revised quartet no. 1 as well as the quartet no. 2, written in 1941–2. With its synthesis of freely flowing madrigalian sprung rhythm and Beethovenian sonata dialectic, the second quartet is imbued with a sense of spiritual ecstasy and sheer compositional mastery that was new to Tippett's music. Commissions for short choral works now came from Canterbury Cathedral and the BBC, and Benjamin Britten was instrumental in the commission of a fanfare for the fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew's Church, Northampton. Tippett's friendship with Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, was very significant. They had much in common, as pacifists and homosexuals and as passionate advocates of Purcell's music, but in other respects the two composers were complementary characters. Britten had prodigious early ability and evinced a compositional fluency which Tippett naturally envied. Eight years younger than Tippett, Britten was already established as a leading figure in British musical life, and he happily used his influence to help Tippett where he could. On seeing the score of A Child of our Time in 1943 he immediately assisted Tippett with arrangements for its belated première, in which Pears took part. Pears also commissioned the song cycle The Heart's Assurance, the first performance of which he eventually gave with Britten in 1951. This was a long-considered, deeply felt tribute to Francesca Allinson, whose suicide just before the end of the Second World War affected Tippett profoundly. In taking professional stock at the end of the war, however, Tippett was buoyed by the critical success of A Child of our Time, had just completed his symphony no. 1—premiered later in 1945 by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under his former teacher Malcolm Sargent—and was embarked on the string quartet no. 3 for the Zorian Quartet, which he completed in 1946. Both works are richly complex in detail and were his most ambitious instrumental structures to date.

The Midsummer Marriage

Tippett now began to contemplate the most ambitious and risky project of his whole career—a first opera. With no commission in hand for it, let alone any prospect of a performance, it was an enormous gamble to devote some six years to its composition. This was no ordinary opera, for having followed T. S. Eliot's advice in relation to the text of A Child of our Time Tippett decided now to write his own libretto. Eliot's guidance was again pertinent: 'For you who are so very slow, don't go to poets, because you may be given something too quick. You've got to know what your music is first' (Tippett, interview, 1986). A Jungian dream-vision of 'a warm and soft young man … rebuffed by a cold and hard young woman' set in train an archetypal scenario which sought to present in theatrical terms the vision of wholeness prefigured at the end of A Child of our Time:

I would know my shadow and my lightso shall I at last be whole.

Tippett later declared that this was 'the only truth I shall ever say'. In musical terms the opera presents a summation of everything in Tippett's output to date combined with an irresistible sense of dramatic momentum and unprecedented lyrical warmth. The harmonic richness of the score is the perfect mirror of the drama's philosophical quest for spiritual and psychic union. The specific dramatic genre is a blend of Mozart's The Magic Flute and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream—a sublime comedy of manners with Jungian resonances drawn from a wide variety of mythic backgrounds. The interaction of its extended cast of characters with a large chorus and—most innovatively—a group of dancers broke new ground in English operatic history. The extended gestation and prolonged composition took a heavy toll on Tippett's health and stamina, and when completed in 1952 the opera had to wait until January 1955 before it was first produced at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The première was something of a scandal in that most critics declared themselves completely baffled by the scenario, and as a result the glories of the music tended to pass unnoticed. For Tippett, however, it represented the culmination of virtually a decade's work, and it remains the critical watershed of his career. He described its composition as 'an act of faith' possible only once in a lifetime.

Consolidation and operatic aftermath

Between 1946 and 1952 Tippett allowed very little to distract him from work on The Midsummer Marriage. In 1946 Morley College presented the first complete performance in modern times of Monteverdi's celebrated Vespers of 1610, and Tippett composed a Preludio al vespro di Monteverdi (his only organ work as it turned out) to precede this notable event. In 1948 the BBC commissioned a work to be broadcast in celebration of the birth of Princess Elizabeth's first child. The rather anonymously entitled suite in D then became known more characterfully as the Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles. Incorporating as it did some material from the early ballad opera Robin Hood of 1933, it also provided a preview of the delicious march for the ancients from act i of The Midsummer Marriage. Indeed, at the suggestion of the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, Tippett constructed in 1952 a concert suite in which the three 'ritual dances' embedded at the heart of the opera's second act are joined to the climactic fourth dance from act iii and framed by the music which opens and closes act ii. In this form the music was heard in Basel two years before the opera's actual première and went on to become firmly established in the general orchestral repertory. As work on The Midsummer Marriage progressed Tippett began to curtail his commitments at Morley College so that he could concentrate on creative work. With the gradual development of regular radio broadcasting for the BBC he felt able to resign from the college in 1951. In the same year he moved from Oxted, which had been his base since 1929, to live with his mother, who—following the death of Tippett's father in 1944—had just bought Tidebrook Manor in Wadhurst, Sussex. With him went his partner at the time, the painter Karl Hawker (d. 1984).

The sound-world of The Midsummer Marriage proved so potent that Tippett extended it very naturally in a series of works for the concert hall. The antiphonal choral writing of the madrigal 'Dance, clarion air', written as part of a collective tribute to mark the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, is full of the opera's evocative echo effects. Perhaps most quintessentially of all, the Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli (an Edinburgh Festival commission to mark the tercentenary of Corelli's birth in 1953) seems saturated in the harmonic effulgence and lyrical outpouring of The Midsummer Marriage. The same is true of parts of the piano concerto of 1953–5 and the symphony no. 2, completed in 1957. In these works Tippett also broke new ground and began to introduce a harder edge in both linguistic and structural terms. Given in the years immediately following the first performance of The Midsummer Marriage, the premières of both works were fraught with difficulties—the symphony even breaking down within a few minutes—and contributed to a perception that Tippett's music was either exceptionally difficult to perform or, worse still, impractical and clumsily written. It took a decade or more to eradicate these prejudices and the impressions stuck. But by 1957, having pondered very carefully the impact of The Midsummer Marriage, Tippett was already contemplating a second opera which would break open his musical and dramatic language irrevocably.

King Priam and The Knot Garden

Taking a scenario from the Iliad of Homer, the tragedy of King Priam is presented with a Brechtian clarity of dramatic image and adopts from the start a hard-hitting musical rhetoric which effectively jettisons much that was hitherto fundamental to Tippett's language. Such a shift was partly dictated by the war-coloured subject matter, but it also points towards a widening of tonal horizons and a radical approach to structure and instrumental texture. The impact of the opera's première in a production by the Royal Opera House, first seen in Coventry as part of the Coventry Cathedral Festival of 1962, was enormous, and critical acceptance of this new departure for Tippett was immediate. As with his previous opera, the abstract works which followed immediately—the piano sonata no. 2 and the concerto for orchestra—extend the expressive world of King Priam, thus establishing a pattern which Tippett followed for the rest of his compositional career. His position as a leading composer was now recognized: having been appointed CBE in 1959, he was knighted in 1966. During the composition of King Priam in 1960 Tippett moved to live in Parkside, a beautiful Georgian house in Corsham, Wiltshire, where he remained until 1970. These years saw the composition of the visionary choral masterpiece The Vision of Saint Augustine in 1963–5 and the vivid psycho-drama of the Tempest-inspired third opera The Knot Garden, which was completed in 1969 and premiered at Covent Garden in 1970. In 1970 it was announced that the onset of macular dystrophy had drastically curtailed Tippett's sight, but he overcame this problem with remarkable courage and determination. He was now artistic director of the Bath Festival (in succession to Yehudi Menuhin), which he ran from 1969 until 1974, and in 1970 (following the death of his mother the previous year) he moved to a secluded house called Nocketts, near Calne in Wiltshire, where he lived in peaceful seclusion for the rest of his creative life. Following the irretrievable breakdown of his relationship with Karl Hawker, Tippett enjoyed from the mid-1960s until the end of his life a rewarding relationship with Meirion (Bill) Bowen, who also acted as his manager, amanuensis, and musical confidant.

America and beyond

In 1965 Tippett visited America for the first time and fell in love with the wide-ranging culture he encountered there. The influence was immediately apparent in the jazz and blues inflections of The Knot Garden and the vocal 'blues' finale of the symphony no. 3 (1970–72). The symphony also shows the powerful influence of the maverick American composer Charles Ives, whose work increasingly fascinated Tippett. The fabric of American life also had a profound bearing on the scenario for the fourth opera, The Ice Break, which was premiered at Covent Garden in 1977. Its enaction of a fatal race riot and a drug-induced ‘trip’ caused some controversy at the time, and its often splintered language arguably failed to realize Tippett's intentions fully. But in his own terms he had 'come out of the garden into the street' (Tippett, interview, 1986) and soon confessed that he was 'turning his back with some pleasure on the cruel world of The Ice Break' (Tippett, interview, 1977). A trilogy of instrumental works written between 1976 and 1979—the symphony no. 4, string quartet no. 4, and triple concerto—became conscious works of stylistic synthesis in preparation for The Mask of Time, an evening-long choral work for the concert hall commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and first performed in Boston in 1982. Partly inspired by Jacob Bronowski's television series The Ascent of Man, this hugely ambitious work evolves from myths of creation to the presentation of man's place in history with a breathtaking sweep of invention. The climax is a moving elegy for the victims of war and specifically of Hiroshima out of which Tippett presents an exhilarating concluding vision of hope in the future, thus setting a seal on a vivid and idiosyncratic summation of the concerns of a lifetime. After his appointment as CH in 1977, the queen appointed Tippett to the Order of Merit in 1983.

Grand old man

Having declared in 1977 that The Ice Break would be his final opera, Tippett entered his eighties in 1985 with the announcement of a fifth opera—New Year. Premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 1989, this hybrid of musical and masque, television play and pantomime presents another summation of Tippett's abiding preoccupations. The inclusion in the scenario of a spaceship and time travel, alongside the sounds of rap, reggae, and electronics from the pit, provided further evidence of Tippett's seemingly inexhaustible capacity for self-renewal. This Indian summer of his career continued with a setting of Yeats's Byzantium for soprano and orchestra for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1988–90), the string quartet no. 5 (1990–91), and The Rose Lake—'a song without words for orchestra' (1991–3) which Tippett designated his swansong. Even then he came out of retirement briefly in his ninetieth year with a moving setting of Caliban's song from The Tempest as a tribute to Purcell on the tercentenary of his death in 1995. By 1996 Tippett's frailty necessitated his moving from Nocketts to a house in Isleworth, west London. A mild stroke in the same year curtailed his ability to travel, but even in November 1997 he was determined to visit Stockholm for an extensive festival of his music. Having just arrived he fell ill with pneumonia, and although he recovered sufficiently to return to Britain he died peacefully at his home, 13 Herons Place, Isleworth, on 8 January 1998, having just passed his ninety-third birthday. He was cremated on 15 January at Hanworth crematorium, at an explicitly non-religious service.

At his death a general consensus emerged that Tippett would take his place alongside the greatest English composers of the twentieth century—Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, and arguably Walton. His reputation had grown steadily during the 1970s and 1980s, thus reversing the earlier decades of neglect. But while the value of his works up to but not necessarily including the second opera King Priam is uncontroversial, it is perhaps ironic that no consensus yet exists in respect of the works composed from the 1960s onwards. There is a school of thought—articulated by the composer Robin Holloway and the musicologist Derrick Puffett among others—which sees the last three decades as a 'tragic decline'. It could equally be argued, however, that this point of view reveals a failure to understand the very nature of Tippett's undoubted genius. Terms of reference in such matters are notoriously difficult to pinpoint, and the debate will continue. What cannot be gainsaid is that Tippett will emerge as one of the most original and powerful musical voices of twentieth-century Britain when countless others are forgotten—and this partly because he so vividly reflected the century through which he lived.


  • I. Kemp, The composer and his work (1984)
  • A man of our time (1977) [exhibition catalogue]
  • I. Kemp, ed., Michael Tippett: a symposium on his 60th birthday (1965)
  • G. Lewis, ed., Michael Tippett O.M.: an 80th birthday celebration (1985)
  • M. Tippett, interview, The Guardian (7 July 1977)
  • M. Tippett, interview, The Guardian (6 Oct 1986)
  • The Times (10 Jan 1998)
  • The Guardian (10–11 Jan 1998)
  • The Independent (10 Jan 1998)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, MSS
  • BL, music collections, corresp., music MSS, and papers, Add. MSS 53771, 61748–61804, 63820–63840, 69422
  • Britten–Pears Library, The Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, MSS
  • FM Cam., MSS
  • L. Cong., MSS
  • Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel, MSS
  • St John Cam., MSS
  • BL, music collections, letters to Brian Douglas Newton, deposit 1996/10, Tippett letters
  • W. Sussex RO, letters to Walter Hussey


  • O. Kokoschka, pencil drawing, 1960
  • G. Hermes, bronze cast of head, 1966, NPG
  • M. Ward, bromide print, 1972, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1974, repro. in The Independent
  • A. Newman, bromide print, 1978, NPG
  • photograph, 1979, repro. in The Times
  • M. Rose, acrylic on canvas, 1989, NPG
  • D. Glass, bromide print, NPG
  • H. Leslie, silhouette drawing, NPG
  • N. Libbert, photograph, repro. in The Guardian (10 Jan 1998)

Wealth at Death

£156,718: probate, 15 July 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales