I have always been a fan of Michael Tippett’s music. Indeed, the wonderful English music written in the first fifty years of the twentieth century I have always considered to be my musical home (apart from rock and blues). I saw that this biography had been published and thought ‘Michael Tippett; there’s a blast from the past’. Nobody plays his music any more. Except for the exceptional arrangements of the Negro Spirituals from Child of our Time.
It being a time of pestilence, and one’s social life a casualty, I have been reading a lot – so a thumping great biography of some 800 pages was not as daunting a prospect as it might normally have been. Indeed, it was this or another crack at War and Peace. I’m glad I went for this. And it was available on Kindle, at a very reasonable price, which I preferred so as not to aggravate my sore wrists with holding a tome.
But what on earth made me think it good for reading in bed? Because I found it to be so. And not because it is a soporific. I came to look forward to my nightly sojourn with Soden and Tippett more than anything else I have read over the past six months. Soden has a style so light and yet informative that half an hour with the two of them last thing at night has been a habit, formed over several months, from which I am even now experiencing withdrawal.
I am not a music specialist, but it seems to me that Soden has been diligent almost to a fault with his research for this book and his decisions on what to include. It was a long and full life (1905 – 1998), which explains the 800pp. Soden has, however, done his best to keep matters moving and I think succeeds admirably, partly by grouping photos, lists of the works and other reference matter at the back. The pages keep turning because Tippett’s life was so full of incident and he such a complicated, at times downright difficult, individual.
It’s all in here. The triumphs, the lack of money, the rows with friends, the bad reviews, the excitement at a new piece; his lack of self-discipline juxtaposed with how driven he became when a new musical idea came to him, how he worried at it, sometimes for years, before it saw the light of day. Also in here is what he thought about his own music and about the music of others – notably, of course, Benjamin Britten. Soden also considers how other contemporary and later composers were influenced by Tippett from which it is clear that if Tippett hadn’t existed, we would have needed to invent him.
Tippett’s correspondence was copious. (What will biographers do in the future, when only txtspk emails glimmering dully in the ether will remain to be mined for this kind of precious material?) And Soden sets the life alongside the extraordinary events which shaped it: two world wars, the Space Race, the gradual acceptance of homosexuality, the Summer of Love, the Winter of Discontent – the twentieth century was certainly eventful.
Even if you don’t like the music, Tippett’s life is a fascinating microcosm of those coteries of clever, gay, artistic men who, before 1967 and even thereafter, had perforce to express themselves in metaphor so as to avoid the attention of the authorities.