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When Sir Michael Tippett first worked with the BBC Singers in 1944, the experience was such that he recalled nearly 50 years later that 'It was to be the first of many such occasions when a composer's dreams were brought to fulfillment.' Now under their Conductor Laureate, Stephen Cleobury, the present-day BBC Singers return the compliment with this programme of his works for choir, both unaccompanied and with organ.
Choirs and choral music played a significant role in Tippett’s career. As a student at the Royal College of Music, he took every opportunity to fill a gap in his education by hearing Renaissance choral music in London’s cathedrals and churches; and his involvement became more practical when he began conducting a madrigal choir in the Surrey village of Oxted (where he went to live). He later conducted choirs associated with left-wing causes in London. And in the 1940s, when he took on the post of Music Director of Morley College, the adult education institution in south London, one of his main responsibilities was conducting the college’s Choir. An inspiring leader if no conducting technician, he built it up from an initial membership of eight to become a major force in the musical life of London and, through broadcasts, the whole country. Its activities combined contemporary music with important revivals of music by Purcell and Tudor composers—including the first ever recording, conducted by Tippett, of Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium.
So successful was Tippett with the Morley Choir, indeed, that in the early 1950s the impresario Walter Legge invited him to form and train what was later to be the Philharmonia Chorus—though, realising this would involve working on standard choral repertoire of no interest to him as a composer, Tippett declined the offer. But even after parting company with Morley in 1951, he continued to conduct choirs from time to time in his own choral works. Notably, he took charge of the first performance of his challenging The Vision of Saint Augustine in 1966, and of its first recording five years later; and he conducted a recording of his A child of our time in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, at the age of eighty-five.
These two major works and the evening-length The Mask of time, as well as several of the operas, all have important contributions by the chorus, representing in different ways collective as opposed to individual experience—a concept central to Tippett’s view of the composer’s role in society. But it has to be admitted that for choir alone, or with organ, there is no extended work by Tippett of comparable significance: nothing on a par with, say, the Hymn to St Cecilia or A Boy was born of his colleague and friend Benjamin Britten. Indeed, his only two choral cycles of any substance both consist of arrangements of traditional songs. However, even those arrangements are highly personal in manner and, together with a number of original small-scale works, they make a valuable contribution to the choral repertoire—as well as illuminating Tippett’s stylistic preoccupations and development in the earlier part of his career.
Tippett’s earliest published pieces for chorus were Two Madrigals, contrasting settings of Edward Thomas’s poem The Source and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Windhover. They were written in 1942 and dedicated “to Morley College Choir”; they were first performed at the College in July 1943, conducted not by the composer but by his Morley colleague Walter Bergmann. Thomas’s nature painting is set with only a few patches of madrigalian imitation, but with several of the ecstatic melismas (many notes to a single syllable) that characterise Tippett’s vocal music throughout his career. The setting of Hopkins’s wonder-struck description of a hawk in flight is more obviously a modern equivalent of the Tudor madrigal, with the text depicted line by line in changing textures, and the stresses of the words interacting with syncopations and changing metres to produce lithe, flexible rhythms, separating into counterpoint and reuniting for cadences or passages in octaves. “Curious, experimental stuff it is”, Tippett wrote to his close friend Francesca Allinson when he was working on the Madrigals—“interweaving rhythms which I can’t theoretise but only pattern out by instinct.”
In the same letter, Tippett complained that working on such a small scale was “not altogether my cup of tea, really”; but during wartime he accepted commissions for two more choral miniatures. The motet Plebs angelica was written in late 1943 and early 1944 for the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral, though the first performance was eventually given by T.B. Lawrence’s Fleet Street Choir, in the Cathedral, in September 1944. The text is a mediaeval Latin lyric, a prayer to the heavenly host to be conducted into paradise. Tippett sets it for two antiphonally placed four-part choirs, in his own characteristic freely alternating metres, but in a glowing mixture of chordal and contrapuntal writing clearly suggested by English Renaissance practice.
The Weeping babe, the occasion of Tippett’s first encounter with the BBC Singers (at the time an elite group of two octets distinct from the main BBC Chorus), was one of four collaborations between poets and composers for Poet’s Christmas, broadcast on the BBC Home Service on Christmas Eve 1944. The poem by Edith Sitwell is a serious nativity carol which looks ahead to the Crucifixion. Tippett’s setting is again madrigalian in style, with an expressive soprano solo, and one of his typically satisfying final cadences.
Tippett’s major wartime achievement was his oratorio A child of our time, written between 1939 and 1943, and first performed in London in March 1944. The composer’s text was based on recent events, the murder of a Nazi diplomat in 1938 by a Polish Jewish refugee, and the savage Nazi reprisals of “Kristallnacht”. But it comments on them not from a Christian or patriotic point of view, but from that of a Jungian pacifist, arguing for every individual’s need to come to terms with the “dark side” of his or her personality, rather than project hatred on to an enemy. Musically, Tippett modelled the work on Handel’s Messiah and the Passions of Bach; but in place of the Lutheran chorales which punctuate the Passions, he used Afro-American spirituals, “arranged and sung after the manner of the best Negro choirs”. These spirituals, powerful and universally familiar expressions of the sufferings of the victims of oppression, make a profoundly moving effect, both in their original context, and in the a cappella arrangement which Tippett made of them in 1958 at the request of his German publisher. Of these Five Negro Spirituals from A child of our time, the first two are essentially as in the oratorio, while the last three are reworked to incorporate, or replace, independent orchestral parts; the original solo parts are retained for “leaders” of each section.
Tippett reverted to his “modern madrigal” manner in 1952 for Dance, clarion air. This was his contribution to A Garland for the Queen, a collection of ten “songs for mixed voices” commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in honour of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and first performed by the Golden Age Singers and the Cambridge University Madrigal Society, conducted by Boris Ord, at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Coronation Eve, 1 June 1953. All the texts were specially written by leading poets of the time: Tippett’s was by Christopher Fry, a friend and collaborator in the 1930s who had subsequently become well known for his verse dramas. The setting is for five-part choir, with “echoes” for a semi-chorus or soloists, and two short phrases for a high solo soprano. A dancing fanfare precedes an episode shaped in a gradual crescendo, a slightly slower section beginning as a double canon, and a passage rising to an exultant climax. The luminous conclusion hints, Tippett himself said, at one of the most celebrated of all English madrigals, Wilbye’s Draw on, sweet night.
Tippett made his arrangements of Four Songs from the British Isles for unaccompanied four-part chorus in 1957, in response to a commission from North West German Radio, Bremen, for a festival of European folk song. But the amateur choir for which they were intended found them too difficult, and the first performance took place only in July 1958, given by the London Bach Group, conducted by John Minchinton, at Royaumont in France. Tippett chose the English song “Early one morning” for what he described as its “classic line, tender and pure”, and his setting preserves the melody intact, passing it from voice to voice in accordance with the narrative, and framing and surrounding it with some characteristic counterpoint. “Lilliburlero”, probably an original Irish jig though its words may well be a 17th-century English parody of Irish brogue, provides what the composer called a “rollicking and vigorous scherzo”. “Poortith cauld” (“Cold poverty”) has words by Robert Burns, fitted to the traditional Scottish tune “Cauld kail in Aberdeen”; Tippett admired this “rich and strong melody”, and as well as framing it with his own introduction, interludes and coda he also treats it to decorative variation and even rhythmic transformation. “Gwenllian”, a cradle song for a 13th-century Welsh princess, is, Tippett said, “possibly an older tune ‘four-squared’ for harp in the 18th century. So I had to loosen it, by trick means, towards my own lilt.” This he does by adding counterpoints in conflicting cross-rhythms, and an introduction, interlude and coda in 5/8 time interleaved with odd bars of 2/4—his “own lilt” indeed.
The recently published volume of Tippett’s Selected Letters, edited by Thomas Schuttenhelm, includes a progress report on the Four Songs to the composer’s German publisher, dated 28 July 1957, in which he says that he proposes to replace his original Scottish song because it is “too strictly held by a publisher here”. The discarded number, Over the sea to skye, was discovered after Tippett’s death in the offices of his London publishers Schott’s; it was published at the end of 2002, and first performed the following July in Dublin. The “Skye Boat Song”, as it is usually called, is an adaptation of a traditional Scottish rowing song, but was published in 1884 with newly written words by Sir Harold Boulton, a lullaby for Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, as he is rowed with his helper Flora MacDonald to the isle of Skye following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Tippett surrounds the familiar melody with proliferating contrapuntal lines, until at the end he reverts to his original, simple treatment, and adds a characteristic receding coda.
The years around 1960 saw a sharp change in Tippett’s music, towards much sparser textures, more astringent harmonies, and forms made up of a mosaic of contrasting units—and this is reflected in two of the three choral miniatures dating from this period. The odd one out is Unto the hills, a four-part hymn tune on a 19th-century metrical paraphrase of Psalm 121 by John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne, which Tippett composed in 1958 for the Salvation Army. The setting, which he called Wadhurst after the Sussex village where he was living at the time, has some not quite conventional if never startling harmonies, and a metrical freedom reminiscent of the hymns of Orlando Gibbons.
The Lullaby was written in 1959 for the tenth anniversary of the Deller Consort, founded and led by Alfred Deller, the pioneer of the counter-tenor revival, whom Tippett had first brought to national prominence. It was first performed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in January 1960. The poem by W.B. Yeats, always one of Tippett’s favourite authors, includes among its allusions to different legends one to the story of King Priam, the subject of the opera on which Tippett was then working. The text is carried in full in the solo part, written for Deller himself, and full of declamatory flourishes distantly derived from the vocal writing of Purcell. The other five parts—originally for soloists, though Tippett said they could also be sung by a small choir—surround this central line with fragments of echo and resonance, in a manner which looks ahead to the choral writing of The Vision of Saint Augustine and even The Mask of time.
The setting of the Anglican Evensong canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, the atheist Tippett’s only treatment of a liturgical text, was commissioned for the 450th anniversary of the foundation of St John’s College, Cambridge, written in 1961, and first sung by the College Choir under George Guest in March 1962. The Magnificat is dominated by flamboyant flourishes intended for the trumpet stop recently installed on the St John’s organ, standing out amidst cool chordal writing for the choir. The Nunc dimittis gives the melodic lead to a solo treble or soprano over subdued chanting, punctuated by occasional organ chords. But there is one passage in the work which harks back to earlier Tippett, and to earlier centuries, when the 5/4 time doxology of the Magnificat breaks into flowing four-part counterpoint, reminiscent once more of the Tudor composers by whom Tippett was so fruitfully inspired.
Anthony Burton © 2006