Classic interview with Sir Michael Tippett (Gramophone, April 1971)

For the last 90 years Gramophone has built up an unrivalled collection of interviews with the leading classical artists and composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. From October 30 you will be able to read every page of every issue of Gramophone since 1923 on your iPad, iPhone or desktop computer as part of your digital magazine subscription. Follow this link for more information about the digital magazine, soon to include the new, unrivalled, Gramophone Archive.

Reprinted below is just one of the thousands of interviews that you will be able to enjoy in the Gramophone Archive – Alan Blyth talks to Sir Michael Tippett (GramophoneApril 1971):

Sir Michael invited me down to his home near Chippenham to discuss the new recording of The Midsummer Marriage and his musical life in general. He is as compulsive a talker as composer and, as anyone who has seen him speaking in public or on television will know, he expects your mind to keep up with his own quickness and variety of thoughts whatever the subject. You may begin by talking about some aspect of his early career only to find that the subject has imperceptibly turned towards metaphysics or religion. You remind him of the original point and, with that disarmingly expressive laugh of his, he will note the digression and return to his first idea. But not for long.

When discussing his career, I think it is as well to recall that Tippett has not always received the critical acclaim or material rewards that are rightly his today. Up to eight or 10 years ago he was still something of a musical outsider and before that, in his early years, he was near the poverty line. Not that it worried him; as he put it to me: 'In those days before the affluent society you could be a "garret artist" without losing status.'

That was in his early twenties. Before then, his musical experience had been acquired gradually, surely. There was no music in his family, none in his first schools. 'During the First World War, everything like that was cut out of the curriculum. But I had a musical instinct of my own. It was first brought out when I went to a grammar school at Stamford. I remember to this day hearing a programme including Mozart's G minor Symphony and the A major Concerto, K488, and the impression it made on me. For myself I played Bach, Beethoven and Schubert on the piano. But the dam didn't really break until I went to the Royal College and began to study with Charles Wood. We clicked, and I was drawn out into this tremendous world. Just at that time the Proms came back after the wartime break. One season I heard Wood conduct all the Beethoven symphonies – Beethoven was my god at that time – and I remember following them all with a miniature score. I was eating up music then and I had a huge appetite and catholic taste.'

Then, after a few years as a schoolmaster, he retired to a Surrey village to compose – he has always felt he needed absolute quiet to work properly – and got caught up with the Little Theatre movement flourishing at that time. 'I suppose it was about 1926 or 1927 and I went to work at the Barn Theatre at Oxted. I was housed and fed by the people there while I wrote and conducted for them. I recall we gave a very early performance of Vaughan Williams's The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains and the old man came down to hear it. The other half of the programme was Everyman.

'I had my own choir and I began to get to know the madrigalists and the great early English composers. I got hold of the 18th-century ballad-opera Love in a Village and rewrote the whole thing.

'We also did Stanford's Travelling Companion, which I rescored for strings, wind and harmonium. You can see I was learning my job in the most practical way possible. Incidentally I think there's much more in Stanford than you might imagine. His opera taught me a great deal about how to set the English language. His accentuation is very precise. All that lot, when they weren't copying the Germans, helped to develop a distinctive English style. So, of course, did Holst. I think his Hymn Of Jesus is much more important in this respect than Elgar's Gerontius, and there's a lot of it in Seiber's Ulysses, which I performed later at Morley College.

'Out of all this came a concert of my own music in the Barn Theatre in 1930. I think we included a quartet and a concerto for four horns and double strings – there's still a copy of it around somewhere. But more important, we also did a performance of the Messiah. It was a curious experience. I had never heard the work when I came across the Chrysander Edition. It was a revelation. I was astounded by the power of the work's direct utterance. We gave a reasonably authentic performance and it taught me a tremendous amount. After that, Handel rather than Bach, became my bible. Those single lines – violin, soprano and figured bass – impressed me most.

'The text too had its influence. I saw at once it was a libretto. I found out why it was in three parts, how Handel related eschatological events to pieces of music. People too familiar with the words, don't realise this. For instance the third part is all St Paul, all metaphysical. All this came out in my own Child of Our Time.'

After that concert of his own music in 1930, Tippett withdrew his early works. Why? 'Well, I realised very clearly that they were not totally consonant with myself. I didn't think they had the stamp of artistic durability. So I took the whole lot along to RO Morris who agreed that they didn't show enough technical mastery. So began a period of 18 months rigorous study with him, virtually working on one fugue subject, which forced me to use my musical imagination for a deliberate purpose. One day he said to me that "I could never be as wayward as you are". I think I had moved forward again, now with a greater command over my resources.'

All this indicates that Tippett was a late developer. 'I've always been conscious of not being in a hurry. Constant Lambert, a direct contemporary of mine, appeared to be the figure that was coming out on top at that time. He went deliberately with the avant-garde while I was still mucking about with English madrigals. However, I was affected by Stravinsky, or at least by his neo-classicism as represented by the Violin Concerto, which I heard at the Proms about this time. I was fascinated by that D major trumpeting at the start of the Violin Concerto. I think this influence came out in many of my earlier works. I was drawn to the neo-classical efforts of getting out of the Romantic jam rather than the expressionist ones. Incidentally, nobody has yet really written a proper study of neo-classicism.'

His preoccupation with classical form was one of his inspirations leading him towards opera. The other was his interest in words, where he was much helped by TS Eliot. He guided him when he was preparing the text of A Child of Our Time, which was originally intended to be an opera. He was in any case interested in reconciling 'the contemplative story of an oratorio with the dramatic presentation of opera. Eliot published an analysis of the first scene of Hamlet and the way the needs of drama and poetry are reconciled. After the dramatic action with the ghost and so on, the pure lyric poetry takes over. I was interested in reconciling the demands of drama and of music in opera.

'I think that by the time I came to The Midsummer Marriage I had reached some sort of solution, but it needed a hell of a lot of cogitation; it was the climax of a great number of attempts at setting words. Looking back I now can see that the opera lies right in the centre of my life, because it came at the period of my existence when I was at my most powerful. This extraordinary stream of lyric invention could hardly have come at a later date. It's to do with what the lyrical impulse really is. After that I was so exasperated with the lyrical sweeping all trouble away that I turned deliberately into the tragic world of Priam. I tried to be sharp, violent and heroic. I did attempt at least to have a look at the meaning of real tragedy. With The Knot Garden, I've shifted out of it again and tried to show how mercy can save us.'

In both this recent work and in The Midsummer Marriage, Tippett has tried to press the importance of achieving salvation in pairs. 'This idea of two going together, which you also find in The Magic Flute comes more from Hindu than from Christian philosophy. Bunyan shows his pilgrim alone with God. Today I think we are moving away from this conception of a single soul and his Maker towards the one of us all going along together. When I was working on The Midsummer Marriage, I looked for months and months to find something like this in European mythology, but in the end I found it in the Hindu religion.'

Tippett is, of course, absolutely delighted to have the work on record, and he is certain that the set will be a watershed in spreading knowledge of his music beyond these shores. He is also pleased that the performance came directly after 'live' ones on the Covent Garden stage. 'The playing has a marvellous bloom on it and everyone gets caught up by some sort of radiance, inspired by Colin's reading.'

In some quarters it has been felt that the small cuts, made for a variety of technical reasons at Covent Garden, should have been restored for this definitive recording. The composer, ever the practical musician, does not agree and says as much in a note that accompanies the set. He preferred the performance to be just as it was on stage, and believes that the small excisions from the Ritual Dances and an ensemble probably enhance the results.

In the past few months, Tippett has been busily engaged on completing his Third Symphony, due to be performed for the first time in June 1972. He told me that, unlike the pieces surrounding his earlier operas, this one does not specifically derive from experiences gained in writing The Knot Garden, although he thinks there is bound to be some stylistic connections. It ends with a dramatic soprano solo commenting on the Schiller poem Beethoven chose for the Choral. 'It will ask the question: what are our affirmations?', Tippett told me.

After the symphony, he must write a piece commissioned by Solti for Chicago and then 'another opera for Colin. When I've finished the symphony I must get the synopsis, which I have in my mind, hammered out. All in all I think at the moment I'm in an extraordinarily creative period, so I must simply keep out of harm's way.'

That is one reason he has moved to a house even further in the depths of the country, where he can have absolute peace – except when someone like myself comes along to bother him. 'It's quite clear I can't go on having an active career as a conductor while I'm busy composing, and also trying to organise the Bath Festival. Something has to go. I shall do the occasional concert but that's about all. I was for a while rushing about all over the world when my body gave me a warning to stop. Besides to do works of a large dimension requires a degree of incubation. I have to brood over them. This means that I must have time not only to put the music on paper but also for the waywardness to let my imagination loose on the next pieces.

'The world of creating has always been an obsession with me and it has become more so. It's probably something to do with age but I don't really know. To get away from it I have to see another landscape, try to recapture the footlooseness of earlier holidays – though, of course, I don't succeed, but I remind myself of Goethe at Marienbad, when he was 74 falling in love with a girl of 19.'

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