Sir Michael Kemp Tippett OM CH CBE (2 January 1905 – 8 January 1998) was an English composer. He is one of the greatest and most original composers of the 20th century. He did not start to study music seriously until he was nearly grown up, and only become famous when he was about 40. The rhythms in his music and the tonality are very original. He is remembered for many kinds of music: opera, oratorio, orchestral music, chamber music and piano music. His oratorio A Child of our Time is especially well-known and often performed by choirs.
Tippett was born in Eastcote, Middlesex and spent his childhood in a small village in Suffolk. His father had retired and had bought a hotel in Cannes, France. Michael and his brother learned to speak French when they were very young. He was sent to school in Edinburgh when he was 13 but did not like it there so he went to the local Stamford Grammar School in Lincolnshire.
The only musical training he had as a child were his piano lessons. When he had finished his school years he decided he wanted to be a composer, but neither he nor his parents knew the best way to become a composer. He started having more piano lessons. Then someone said he should go to the Royal College of Music. He went there at the beginning of the summer term, 1923 and spent five years there studying music. He then moved to Oxted in Surrey and for six years he taught French at a school. He composed in his free time.
In Oxted there was a small choir. Tippett had sung with them while he was a student. Now he became their conductor and he learned a lot about music by getting the choir to sing English madrigals and other music including operatic music. He took some more lessons in composition from R.O.Morris at the RCM. He went to music camps where he learned more ideas about politics than about music. He agreed with a lot of the ideas of Trotsky. He became a pacifist and in 1940 he registered as a conscientious objector. In 1943 he spent three months in prison because he refused to help with the war effort.
Meanwhile Tippett had become director of music at Morley College. He made the choir there into one of the best choirs in England. He played a lot of music by Henry Purcell whose music was not as well known then as it is now. He also worked with young musicians who later became famous: the tenor Peter Pears, the countertenor Alfred Deller and the Amadeus String Quartet.
In 1951 he became a broadcaster with the BBC. Some of the talks he gave on the radio were published in his book Moving into Aquarius. He continued a brilliant career as composer, conductor and broadcaster. He was director of the Bath Festival which he helped to improve a lot. He became internationally famous, especially in America. His Symphony no 4 and his oratorio Mask of Time were written for performances in America. His last opera New Year was written jointly for the Houston Grand Opera, Glyndebourne and the BBC. He was made a CBE in 1959, knighted in 1966, made a Companion of Honour in 1979 and received an Order of Merit in 1983. He received many honours from universities.
Tippett died from pneumonia in London in 1998 after travelling to Stockholm for a festival which included all his works except his stage works. Although he was able to return home he died shortly afterwards.
It is unusual for a great musician to begin studying music properly at the age of 18. However, he was old enough to realize that he had a lot to learn. He studied counterpoint and was influenced by the way Classical composers had shaped their music. Beethoven especially was an inspiration for him. One of his best-known works is the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-1939). It shows his love of folk music as well as interest in English music of the Renaissance. This music is exciting because of its beats, which keep changing, and its dance-like character.
A Child of Our Time was an oratorio which used negro spirituals. He combined these with his own style of music. It is about something that really happened in 1938. A 17-year-old Jewish Polish boy killed a Nazi diplomat because the Nazis had taken away his parents. The Nazis were angry and killed lots of Jews in return. It was something which helped to lead to the World War II. Tippett’s music is about the cruelty that humans show towards one another.
Tippett’s operas include A Midsummer Marriage (started 1946, first performed 1955), King Priam (1958-61), The Knot Garden (1966-69) and The Ice Break (1973-76) and New Year (1989). He wrote several choral works. His orchestral works include 4 symphonies, a Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli for strings (1953), a Piano Concerto (1953-55) and a Concerto for violin, viola and cello (1979). His chamber music includes piano sonatas and string quartets.
Tippett published many of his writings. Moving into Aquarius consists of talks given on the BBC. In his autobiography Those Twentieth Century Blues he discusses many of his problems, including his homosexuality, which in his earlier years he could not talk about because it was illegal at that time.