The activism of composer Sir Michael Tippett

I've been a fan of Sir Michael Tippett's music since my Music student days in the late '80s. He was someone who showed that artistic creativity can be a powerful force for good when allied with political activism. This article by his biographer and former personal assistant/manager, Meirion Bowen, (Tippett died in '98) describes very well how his creative life as a composer and his compassion for the sufferings of others were inseparable. The one fed the other. His profoundly moving 2nd WW oratorio, "A Child Of Our Time" about the real-life plight of a young Jewish boy, is still performed regularly around the world today and is one of the great classical works of the 20th century. We need people like him today to give voice - as he did in "A Child..." - to the oppressed, the persecuted, the marginalised.

I will add after the article a link to the final section of the oratorio in which he uses the negro spiritual "Deep River" (one of a number of spirituals he uses in the way Bach used German hymn tunes in his oratorios to provide moments of communal participation).


"I have always loved Michael Tippett's music, and when a former tutor at Birmingham University recommended me to write a book on the composer, I was able to meet him personally. That was the beginning of my relationship with Michael Tippett. Michael was that rarity, a creative artist who was fanatically devoted to his work, yet enjoyed and indeed relished the company of ordinary people. The wealth he gained through his music enabled him to set up a charitable Foundation, which gave support to young composers and to musical projects and festivals of all kinds. This was typical of someone who, for years, had endured relative poverty while devoting himself to composition: he wanted others to benefit. The classical music world nowadays is in need of figures like Tippett: in this time of economical uncertainties and general disillusion, people would benefit greatly from the example a composer who constantly engages with the world outside his studio.

Tippett's political inclinations were always leftist, though he was never involved in party politics as such. He always focused primarily on people. If he was with us today, he would probably form a youth orchestra, giving hope to the many young people who are out of work in our 2013 Britain. Or he would travel to the West Midlands to witness the condition of the many families in trouble in the British region worst hit by the economic crisis. That was Michael's attitude, just like when he visited work-camps at Boosbeck, where he first lived in a tent then lodged with an unemployed miner and his wife. His encounters with poor people there had such an impact on him that he started questioning whether he had any right to continue compositional work.

In our current world, we do not hear of many plays focusing on the 2007 credit crunch, even though this issue is affecting our hopes for the future. On this topic too, Tippett was well ahead of his time: his revolutionary play, War Ramp, which was premiered in 1935, was an exposure of the moral degeneracy of the bank credit system, which he saw as the principal reason for the exploitation of the working class. The play was a careful analysis of the causes of social injustice. I sometimes wonder what Michael would make of our financial crisis: would he write about that? Would he lose all remaining hopes? I also wonder what he would think about recent history in Iraq, Afghanistan, on terrorism and the war on terror.

Sir Georg Solti and Sir Michael Tippett discuss a detail in the score of Tippett’s Symphony No. 4 prior to its world première in Chicago, October 1977

Tippett's instinctive pacifism and political idealism remained in conflict until 1938, when the Munich crisis led inevitably to war. The assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a 17-year-old Jewish boy led to a terrible pogrom against the Jews. Tippett was personally disturbed by this public turmoil. It was also a time when he undertook a course of Jungian analysis, which led to his understanding of the "shadow" and the "light" in the individual psyche and of the futility of projecting the shadow onto someone else, let alone the horror of a nation projecting onto another nation. He wrote later: "The only concept we can place over against the fact of divided man is the idea of the whole man." Politically, this meant that acts of war compromised fatally any idea of moral integrity in human beings. The day after war was declared - 4 September 1939 - he began writing the music for his most iconic work, the oratorio A Child of Our Time.

While outer events might have prompted from him music of dark foreboding, in actual fact his temperament was inclined to the opposite - affirmation, optimism and even joy. Even A Child of Our Time, focusing on the events in Germany, extrapolates away from the actuality of persecution and ends with an optimism that remained in his work ever after. When I heard the terrible news of the Woolwich attack, I thought what Michael's reaction would be: would he have the strength to turn such horror into music? Would he find inspiration in the woman who tried to reason with one of the alleged attackers, thus focusing on the positive elements amidst such pain?

Much of A Child of Our Time was written with the sound of German bombers overhead. Tippett demonstrated his open commitment to pacifism by joining the Peace Pledge Union, gradually becoming a prominent member and eventually its President. When his age-group was called up for National Service, he applied for provisional registration as a conscientious objector. At an Appellate Tribunal in 1942 he was given conditional registration, but he refused to comply with its conditions - full-time work with Air Raid Precautions - and eventually appeared at Oxted Police Court in June 1943, where he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment. He conformed to the requirements in Wormwood Scrubbs and, qualifying for one-third remission, was released on 21 August. This was proof of a brave, uncompromising mind and this is where the example lies for the younger generations: a man who followed his beliefs with a strict, proud behavior, never yielding to fear or convenience.

Even though Tippett believed that individual human being matters, not the party, the collective, always prone to self-deception, ironically different social groups around the world have identified with the theme of reconciliation and renewal presented in A Child of Our Time - even when clearly conflict will be resumed at some future date, to be resolved all over again. It's important that this particular work by Tippett keeps being performed today, in a time like ours, where habits and technology tend to isolate us. And it's most appropriate for the oratorio to be performed by community choirs collaborating with professional musicians and singers, like it will be at the Royal Festival Hall this Saturday. Once again, Michael Tippett's music unites people and helps spreading a message of hope in troubled times."


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