Thursday, May 22, 2008

An underappreciated composer

I've written before about my admiration for Michael Tippett's music. Every once in a while, I search out another Tippett piece to listen to, and every time I'm bowled over by this phenomenally individual voice. About a month ago, it was his The Mask of Time, an intimidatingly difficult but ingratiatingly written oratorio, and I was astonished to find that there is no recording of the work currently in circulation. (The copy I listened to was from a library.) Today, it was his Second Symphony. Listen to the opening, which is so propulsive I could hardly stay in my chair:

Regular readers of this blog will know that I frequently try to promote the works of obscure composers. But despite my occasional overexcitement when talking about people like Edmund Rubbra, I'm aware that most of these composers are of the second rank. Knowing the symphonies of Franz Berwald will add a lot to your enjoyment of nineteenth-century orchestral music, but you can get a pretty good sense of the symphony without hearing any Berwald. His works aren't essential to the genre the way that Beethoven's or Brahms's, are. Tippett, though, is different - his style is totally original. When we ignore his music, we miss out on a voice that sounds like no-one else's.

Tippett's essential strength is his ability to navigate a middle ground between dissonance and consonance. We've all heard pieces of 1960s serialism that are so radically dissonant as to be totally inexpressive; today, we regularly hear pieces of neo-Romantic sludge that are so reactionary as to lack any sense of personality. The successful composers were the composers who avoided being locked into the past without falling into the trap of writing for an atonal-utopian future that will never arrive. Tippett, like Messiaen and Bartok, can tread both sides of the line, and the music he produces challenges the connoisseur while retaining enough excitement and drama for a general audience. And so when Schoenberg said that there was still much good music to be written in C major, I can't think of a better example of what he meant than Tippett's symphony.

Bottom line: Tippett is really amazing. Go listen to his music.

1 comment:

Philip L. Copeland said...

Just found your blog and I'm going to feature it on ChoralNet over the next couple of days.

Keep writing these interesting posts . . I'll keep linking to them!

philip copeland