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Sir Michael Kemp Tippett OM CH CBE (2 January 1905 – 8 January 1998) was one of the foremost British composers of the 20th century.

Early years

Tippett was born in London of English and Cornishmarker stock. His mother was a charity worker and a suffragette, and he was a cousin of suffragette leader Charlotte Despard.

Although he enjoyed his childhood, after losing their hotel business in southern France, his parents decided to travel through and live on the Continent, and Michael and his brother attended boarding schools in England. At that time, Tippett won a scholarship and studied at Fettes Collegemarker, Edinburghmarker, but he soon moved to Stamford Schoolmarker after some extremely unhappy personal experience. This, combined with his discovering his homosexuality, contributed to making Tippett's teenage years lonely and rather stressful. Although he was open about his sexual orientation, it seems that he started to feel emotional strain from a rather early age, and this later became a major motivation to his composition. Before his time at Stamford, Tippett hardly had any contact with music at all, let alone formal musical training. He recalled that it was in Stamford, where he had piano lessons and saw Malcolm Sargent conducting, that he decided to become a composer, although he did not know what it meant or how to start.

Musical studies

He registered as a student in the Royal College of Musicmarker, where he studied composition with Charles Wood and C. H. Kitson, and the former's teaching on counterpoint had profound influence on Tippett's future compositional style; many of his works, despite the complicated sonority, are essentially contrapuntal. At the RCM, Tippett also studied conducting with Adrian Boult and Malcolm Sargent. In the 1920s, living simply in Surreymarker, he plunged himself into musical life, conducting amateur choirs and local operas. Later, he taught at Morley Collegemarker.

Unlike his contemporaries William Walton and Benjamin Britten, Tippett was a late developer as a composer and was severely critical of his early compositions. At the age of 30, he studied counterpoint and fugue with R. O. Morris. His first mature compositions show a fascination with these aspects.

Formerly a member of the Communist Party, in 1935 Tippett broke with them to join the Trotskyist Bolshevik-Leninist Group. He soon moved on to pacifism and joined the Peace Pledge Union. In the Second World War he registered as a conscientious objector, but refused to accept a condition involving giving up his musical work at Morley Collegemarker; this led to a sentence of three months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs, which he meticulously listed in his Who's Who entry. He later served as Chair and then President of the Peace Pledge Union, and one of his last public acts was to unveil the Commemorative Stone to Conscientious Objectors in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, London, on 15 May 1994, International Conscientious Objectors' Day.


From the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, Tippett had a close relationship with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO), conducting them regularly in the UK and on tour in Europe and generally supporting the state-funded musical education programme that had produced an orchestra of such high standards. He conducted the LSSO almost exclusively in 20th-century music, including Gustav Holst's The Planets, Charles Ives's Three Places in New England (see external link to Putnam's Camp video below), Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Weber and many new works by English composers. Under Tippett, the LSSO, an orchestra of ordinary secondary school children aged 14 to 18, regularly performed on BBC radio and TV, made commercial gramophone records and established new standards for music-making in an educational context. Many leading British performers had their first experience of orchestral music in the LSSO under Tippett.

Tippett was knighted in 1966, and awarded the Order of Merit in 1983. He remained very active composing and conducting. His opera, New Year, received its premiere in 1989. Then came Byzantium, a piece for soprano and orchestra premiered in 1991. His autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues also appeared in 1991. A string quartet followed in 1992. In 1995 his ninetieth birthday was celebrated with special events in Britain, Canada and the US, including the premiere of his final work, The Rose Lake. In that year a collection of his essays, Tippett on Music, also appeared.

In 1996, Tippett moved from Wiltshiremarker to London. In 1997, in Stockholmmarker for a retrospective of his concert music, he developed pneumonia. He was brought home to England, where he died early in 1998.


Tippett was regarded by many as an outsider in British music, a view that may have been related to his conscientious objector status during World War II and his homosexuality. His pacifist beliefs led to a prison sentence during the war: in 1943, at the height of the war, he was summoned to appear before a British government tribunal to justify his conscientious objector status. Instead of receiving an absolute exemption, he was ordered to do full-time farm work. However, Tippett refused to comply with this ruling and was subsequently imprisoned for three months at HMP Wormwood Scrubsmarker.

For many years his music was considered ungratefully written for voices and instruments, and therefore difficult to perform. An intense intellectual, he maintained a much wider knowledge and interest in the literature and philosophy of other countries (Africa, Europe) than was common among British musicians. His (sometimes quirky) libretti for his operas and other works reflect his passionate interest in the dilemmas of human society and the enduring strength of the human spirit.

Tippett was never a prolific composer, and his works, completed slowly, comprised five string quartets, four concerti, four symphonies, five operas and a number of vocal and choral works. His music is typically seen as falling into four distinct periods. The first period (1935–1947) includes the first three quartets, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the oratorio A Child of Our Time (written to his own libretto at the encouragement of T. S. Eliot and first performed by Morley College Choir) and the First Symphony. This period is characterised by strenuous contrapuntal energy and deeply lyrical slow movements. The second period, from then until the late 1950s, includes the opera The Midsummer Marriage, the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, the Piano Concerto, and the Second Symphony; this period features rich textures and effervescent melody. The third period, the 1960s and '70s, is in stark contrast, and is characterised by abrupt statements and simplicity of texture, as in the opera King Priam, the Concerto for Orchestra and the Second Piano Sonata. The fourth period is a rich mixture of all these styles, using many devices, such as quotation (from Ludwig van Beethoven and Modest Mussorgsky, among others). The main works of this period were the Third Symphony, the operas The Ice Break and New Year, and the large-scale choral work The Mask of Time.




  • Symphonies
    • Symphony No. 1 (1944-45)
    • Symphony No. 2 (1956-57)
    • Symphony No. 3 (1970-72)
    • Symphony No. 4 (1976-77)
  • Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-39)
  • Little Music for Strings (1946)
  • Suite in D (written for the birthday of Prince Charles, 1948)
  • Variation on an Elizabethan Theme (1953, part of a composite work composed by Arthur Oldham, Tippett, Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Humphrey Searle, and William Walton)
  • Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (string orchestra, 1953)
  • Divertimento on Sellinger's Round (chamber orchestra, 1953-54)
  • Concerto for Orchestra (1962-63)
  • Severn Bridge Variation (1966, part of a composite work composed by Malcolm Arnold, Alun Hoddinott, Nicholas Maw, Daniel Jones, Grace Williams and Tippett)
  • The Rose Lake (1991-93)


  • Fantasia on a Theme of Handel (piano and orchestra, 1939-41)
  • Piano Concerto (1953-55)
  • Triple Concerto (violin, viola, cello and orchestra, 1978-79)


  • A Child of Our Time (oratorio, 1939-41)
  • The Source (1942)
  • The Windhover (1942)
  • Boyhood's End (tenor and piano, 1943)
  • Plebs Angelica (1943)
  • The Weeping Babe (1944)
  • The Heart's Assurance (tenor and piano, 1951, premiered by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears)
  • Dance, Clarion Air (A Madrigal for Five Voices, 1952)
  • 4 Songs from the British Isles (1956)
  • Crown of the Year (cantata, 1958)
  • Hymn: Unto the hills [Wadhurst] (1958)
  • Music [Words for Music, Perhaps] (1960)
  • Lullaby (1960)
  • Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiensemarker (choir and organ, 1961), commissioned by George Guest for the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge.
  • Songs for Ariel (high voice and piano, 1962)
  • Songs for Achilles (tenor and guitar, 1961; related to King Priam)
  • The Vision of St Augustine (baritone, chorus and orchestra, 1963-65)
  • The Shires Suite (orchestra and chorus, 1965-70, written for the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra - see external links below)
  • Songs for Dov (tenor and chamber orchestra, 1970, related to The Knot Garden)
  • The Mask of Time (oratorio, 1980-82)
  • Byzantium (soprano and orchestra, 1988-90)


  • String Quartets
    • String Quartet No. 1 (1934-35, revised 1943)
    • String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp (1941-42)
    • String Quartet No. 3 (1945-46)
    • String Quartet No. 4 (1977-78)
    • String Quartet No. 5 (1990-91)
  • Piano Sonatas
    • Piano Sonata No. 1 (1936-37, revised 1942 and 1954), originally entitled Fantasy Sonata
    • Piano Sonata No. 2 (1962)
    • Piano Sonata No. 3 (1972-73)
    • Piano Sonata No. 4 (1983-84)
  • Sonata for Four Horns (1955)
  • The Blue Guitar (solo guitar, 1982-83) ( Performer's Guide to Michael Tippett's The Blue Guitar Doctoral Thesis by Orlando Roman)
  • Preludio al Vespro di Monteverdi (Organ Solo, 1946)


  • Praeludium (brass, bells and percussion, 1962)
  • Festal Brass with Blues (1984)


  1. Jessica Duchen, "A man of our time". New Statesman, 1 January 2005.
  2. Obituary of Michael Tippett by J. J. Plant in Revolutionary History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1998)
  3. Michael Berkeley, 'One must have a chaos inside'. The Guardian, 18 December 2004.
  4. Michael Berkeley, "Joyful oblivion". The Guardian, 26 August 2005.


  • Kemp I (1984) "Tippett: the composer and his music, Eulenberg, London
  • "The selected letters of Michael Tippett" (2005), Schuttenhelm T (ed.), Faber and Faber, 2005
  • "Those Twentieth Century Blues", Micheal Tippett, Random Century, 1991,

External links


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