Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Separated at birth?
Anyone following this blog is by now used to extended periods of blogger truancy, followed by apologies of dubious sincerity, so I feel less and less of a need to comment on my absence from this medium. Nothing of enormous importance has happened to me since the beginning of the month; I am still a Canadian male organist who likes semicolons. And I still like Michael Tippett's music.
I've gathered recently that Tippett's music is a fairly unpopular enthusiasm. Certainly when Soho the Dog posted a quiz asking you to choose either Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett, there were precious few respondents that showed any hesitancy over picking Britten. A Google search for the composer's name turns up this essay by Dr. David Wright, who gives a few sentences to every Tippett score, dismissing all of them as failures except for the early hits - the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the Second Symphony, the second string quartet and A Child of Our Time. (Wright on another writer's assessment of a Tippett piano sonata: "That statement is as annoying as the sonata itself.")
Then there's Norman Lebrecht's charmingly titled "Michael Tippett: A composer to forget". Originally composed in December 2004 as a "warning" to audience members to stay away from the Tippett centenary celebrations, Lebrecht paints Tippett as an "inglorious exemplar of English amateurism". Further down the page, he cites "[h]ighly trained German musicians, exiled [!] in Britain" as "aghast at the sloppiness of his structure". And they would know, wouldn't they? Because, after all, they're German. (More on this in a moment). As an example of Tippett's compositional inadequacy, Lebrecht smugly recounts the breakdown of the premiere performance of his Second Symphony. This is almost unbelievably disingenuous - the symphony broke down because of its enormous technical difficulty and rhythmical complexity, combined with the fact that the concertmaster rebowed all the orchestral string parts before the performance without telling anyone. To suggest, as Lebrecht does, that the disastrous premiere of the symphony had anything to do with its formal craftsmanship seems to me deliberately perverse.
All of the above, of course, was necessary only for the two people in the blogosphere who still take Norman Lebrecht seriously, but it does indicate the attitude many people have towards his music. And at least Lebrecht has heard his music; I've read articles which illustrate such bizarre, contradictory views of his compositions that they can't have been based on any actual contact with the music. One North American author dismissively lumped him in with "English pastoralists" like Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, while another named him as one of the terrors of the 1960's avant-garde along with Stockhausen, Boulez and John Cage.
Let's face it: Tippett's awful libretti bring a lot of criticism upon themselves. In the opera New Year, for example, the action centres around a trainee children's doctor named Jo-Ann who wants to work with victims of urban conflict in nearby Terrortown, but is too afraid to venture our of the apartment where she lives with her Rastafarian foster brother, Donny. Luckily for her, a spaceship touches down outside her apartment and a romance with the space pilot helps her to gain the strength to face up to her responsibilities. (Osbert's Rules of Opera, No. 1: Once you've penned the line "then the spaceship lands" in an opera libretto, it's time to start again.) My favourite Tippett howler is from The Ice Break, where a young man expresses discontent that his girlfriend is flirting with another man and she responds "What's bugging you, man? / Cool and jivey once / Now touchy and tight."
But all of this got me thinking: is Tippett so unique as a composer that there isn't some other figure to whom you can compare him? And I realized that he's very similar in some ways to Olivier Messiaen, a similarly inimitable, iconoclastic composer. (There are differences, of course: Messiaen was a compositional prodigy, Tippett a late bloomer.)
Dates: Approximately contemporary: Messiaen (1908-1992) and Tippett (1905-1998)
Unifying Ideology: Catholic Christianity (Messiaen) and atheistic Jungian psychology (Tippett). Both are frequently accused of heavyhandedness by those who find their ideologies unappealling.
Part of a school? No.
Libretti: Both write their own texts, which are considered to be of dubious literary quality. To native speakers, they are obviously imitations of the French surrealists (Messiaen) and T. S. Eliot (Tippett).
Early period: Both wrote works which display an individual voice within their respective traditions (French impressionism for Messiaen; for Tippett; the music of the Vaughan Williams generation and of Tudor composers). This is best seen in works like Messiaen's Preludes, which are clearly inspired by Debussy's cycle, and Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, which is part of a long line of great English string works.
Formative WWII experience: Messiaen famously served in the French army and was captured and imprisoned by the Germans. Tippett, equally famously, refused to serve in the war as a pacifist and was imprisoned by his government as a war resister, despite the efforts of composers like Vaughan Williams to have him released. Both composed famous works to commemorate the war: Quatuor pour le fin de temps and A Child of Our Time (both completed 1941).
Middle Period: Both suddenly broke with their popular early style in favour of a harsher sound world. Messiaen flirted with serialism in the famous Mode de valeur et d'intensites, and based his Livre d'Orgue on strange numerical constructions. Tippett shocked audiences with the disjunct and dissonant lines in his opera King Priam, and many of his admirers accused him of arbitrarily changing his style to ally himself with the avant-garde.
Late Period: Both composers wrote late works in an eclectic style, combining the more appealing sounds of their early period with the harsher style of their middle period.
Work Habits: Both wrote a relatively small number of works, struggling over each one.
Accusations of Amateurism: Messiaen was accused of "juxtaposing instead of composing" for his habit of alternating between unrelated musical sections at the expense of organic development. Tippett was dismissed as an amateur throughout his career, despite his conservatory training.
Unique Fashion Sense: Tippett was frequently criticized for dressing like an aging hippie, while Messiaen could be spotted at a substantial distance by his loud Hawaiian shirts.
Reception: Both are trapped between the conventional concert audience, which enjoys some of the early works but finds the late ones too dissonant, and the contemporary music community, which enjoys some of the late works but considers the early ones to be in poor taste.
So why is Messiaen's music accepted but not Tippett's? One would think that if you have the patience to crack an individual idiom like Messiaen's, you'd be willing to have a go at Tippett. I think that a lot of it has to do with the residual snobbery of classical music audiences. If it's German, it's good (no-one mention Wellington's Victory or Pachelbel's Canon!); if it's from any other national tradition, it's to some degree inferior or provincial. France and Italy are more or less accepted as having distinct traditions worthy of a secondary place, with Russia and the Czech nations holding a slightly lower rung on the ladder. England is practically beneath notice except for a few Britten works. America might get there someday. Canada is entirely off the radar. All other nations are of interest only for exotic colour. This system is infallible, and demonstrates that the world's greatest composer must obviously be Hans Werner Henze.
And the farther away from this continental European tradition you are, the more you revere it. The Lebrecht article I linked to shows us the unpleasant spectacle of a British journalist writing an article which links the word "German" with "well-trained musicians" and the word "English" with "amateur" and "eccentric". Here in Canada, I have colleagues who consider the entire British musical tradition beneath them, even though they're English speakers whose cultural education is otherwise entirely based in British tradition.
This matter of national snobbery really deserves a post to itself, but I've written far too much already. (The first question on the book quiz was "Are you verbose, or concise?")