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The Cambridge Companion to Michael Tippett


 Edited by Kenneth Gloag & Nicholas Jones


 Cambridge: University Press, 2013

Hardback. xxxi + 301 p. ISBN 978-1107021976. £55.00


Reviewed by Jean-Philippe Heberlé

Université de Lorraine



This book is another addition to the now fairly expanded bibliography on the British composer Michael Tippett (1905-1998). It is part of the Cambridge University Press “Cambridge Companions to Music” series whose aim is to “provide clear and accessible information on composers, instruments or musical topics” with “specially-commissioned essays by leading authorities”. This new offering meets all the requirements of the series as it serves as a very good introduction to those who want to get simply acquainted or even better acquainted with Tippett as a man and composer. As is the case with the other books in the “Cambridge Companions to Music” series, a fairly good degree of musical knowledge is required to understand some of the essays to this collection, but the ideas developed in most of them can nonetheless be fully grasped with little musical knowledge. It is co-edited by Kenneth Gloag and Nicholas Jones, who have already edited together Peter Maxwell Davies : Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2009), a collection of essays about the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Kenneth Gloag is also the author of a comprehensive study of Tippett’s first major vocal work: Tippett : A Child of Our Time (Cambridge University Press, 1999). The book reviewed here is also dedicated to Ian Kemp (1931-2011), the English musicologist who published the first major study on Tippett: Tippett : The Composer and his Music (Eulenburg Books, 1984).

Apart from two chapters by Kenneth Gloag and one chapter by Nicholas Jones, the book contains ten other essays written by new or experienced commentators. Among the major and veteran commentators on Tippett, only David Clarke has not contributed to this new collection of essays, but many contributors refer to or quote his major study: The Music and Thought of Michael Tippett : Modern Times and Metaphysics (Cambridge University Press, 2001). The book falls into two parts. The first part is called “Contexts and Concepts”. It contextualises and conceptualises Tippett's work from a musical, personal, historical or ideological perspective. In the second part, the focus shifts to the different genres of the composer’s oeuvre and is simply entitled “Works and Genres”. It is also worth noting that readers will appreciate two excellent appendices by Jonathan Rees in which Tippett’s biographical elements, on the one hand, and his musical output, on the other, are clearly and aptly presented. Finally, many music examples are reproduced to illustrate and back up the contributor's analyses of Tippett's works.

Part I starts with a chapter by Arnold Whittall ("Tippett and twentieth-century polarities") in which the author of The Music of Britten and Tippett : Studies in Themes and Techniques (Cambridge University Press, 1983; 2nd edn., 1990) first reminds the reader that the number of performances or recordings of Tippett’s works have dramatically dwindled since his death in 1998 before focusing on the composer's eclecticism (regarding styles and musical language) and mosaic compositional techniques within the context of musical polarities between tradition and modernism in the twentieth century. With many commentators in this book and other books, Whittall also stresses the importance of King Priam as a turning point in Tippett's musical language. To go further into the contextualisation of Tippett's musical language, the second chapter by Christopher Mark analyses the relation between Tippett and the English musical tradition. Mark’s essay particularly "focuses on Tippett's indebtedness to English musical forms and procedures, highlighting in particular the role of 'fantasy' " [25]. Like many commentators, Christopher Mark stresses the importance of Renaissance and early Baroque music for Tippett, chiefly Madrigals and Purcell's music, but he also insists on the influence of some musicians of the so-called “Second English Renaissance”, most particularly Edward Elgar. Like Purcell and the early madrigalists, they are part and parcel of Tippett’s mosaic approach to composition. The next essay, by Suzanne Cole, complements Mark’s chapter by expanding on the importance of early music for the English composer regarding style and form references. Joanna Bullivant’s essay entitled “Tippett’s and Politics : The 1930s and beyond” reassesses the way Tippett and politics were related, showing it was certainly not as one might have primarily thought: “in one sense Tippett was less political in the 1930s than may initially be apparent, in that his psychological interpretation of politics (and political music) laid the foundation for his later views” [81]. Suzanne Robinson, who published Michael Tippett : Music and Literature (Ashgate, 2002), deals with Tippett’s homosexuality and shows how Tippett evoked it well before his “coming out” in various ways in works like the First String Quartet, A Child of our Time and The Heart’s Assurance. Robinson’s homosexual reading of A Child of our Time offers an original analysis of Tippett’s seminal masterpiece. The last chapter of the first part focuses on Tippett’s creative process and it is by Thomas Schuttenhelm, who edited The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett (Faber & Faber, 2005).

Part II opens on a very illuminating essay by lain Stannard who serves as a fitting "introduction" to the four ensuing chapters. Without denying the composer's change of style from King Priam, Iain Stannard examines how some traits of the composer's technique have remained constant before and after King Priam. He also stresses how many technical features of his new style (defamiliarisation, fragmentation, repetition, or superimposition for instance) derived from the old one before concluding: "Common to the works of both before and after King Priam is an engagement with different, often disparate musical ideas and styles and a conflict between the inclusivity of heterogeneity and the exclusivity of formal unity" [142]. The next four chapters by Edward Venn, Kenneth Gloag, Alastair Borthwick and Nicholas Jones thus also examine the evolution of Tippett's style. Like Stannard, the four authors analyse the transition from the old style to the new one and deal with the characteristics of Tippett's new language before and after King Priam. To complement and illustrate further Stannard's argumentation, they most particularly focus on well-defined "historical archetypes": his four symphonies (Venn), his four piano sonatas (Borthwick), his five string quartets (Jones) or his three concertos (Gloag). Finally, the last two chapters dwell on Tippett's five operas (Gloag) and on the way he combined words and music in his vocal music (Venn). With his analysis of Tippett's operas, Gloag reiterates the importance of King Priam for Tippett's new compositional approach and once again points to the eclectic style of the composer's last output. He also aptly and justly emphasises the importance of operas for Tippett to express his philosophical views: “Opera may have been one of several historically defined genres in which he worked and succeeded, but the synthesis of music and drama […] remained a source of fascination, as did the potential of the genre for reflecting upon the contemporary world and the human condition” [261-262]. Venn, in his second contribution to this collection of essays, shows with relevance how Tippett handled the difficulty of setting words to music by focusing on works like The Vision of Saint-Augustine and The Mask of Time.

Even if some chapters are more illuminating than some others as may often be the case with multi-authored books, it remains very coherent on the whole. It is a worthy addition to Tippett studies because, to a certain extent, it fills a gap in Tippett’s bibliography by providing the reader with a book presenting and analysing in one volume the main aspects of Tippett’s music. It will then serve as a perfect introduction and reference book for those who are not yet familiar with Tippett and his music. Yet, the reader who wants a less academic book to read will turn to Meirion Bowen’s Michael Tippett (Robson Books, 1st edn., 1982; 2nd edn., 1997) and those who expect a more thought-provoking book will read what remains to this day the major study on the British composer: David Clarke’s The Music and Thought of Michael Tippett : Modern Times and Metaphysics (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Ian Kemp’s first major study (see above) also remains highly recommendable, although it does not cover the last two decades of Tippett’s life and work. Will Gloag and Jones’s book contribute to increasing the performances of Tippett’s music in the concert hall – in other words will it succeed where to some extent the others have failed – and will Tippett’s time come again as asserted by Arnold Whittall in the concluding lines of the first chapter [22]? Only time will tell.


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