Michael Tippett 53 BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE Secret history A famous pacifist, composer Michael Tippett had a long-hidden involvement with the violent Trotskyist left wing, reveals his biographer Oliver Soden W hat a complex man Michael Tippett was to bring to life, a person of infinite variety. Most who can remember him today speak of the vivid, slightly cultivated persona that he showed to the public, one of risqué jokes and frequent giggles, calling everyone ‘love’ and turning up to first-night parties in pink trainers. ★e achieved a mainstream celebrity unusual for composers, appearing, in his eighties, on Terry Wogan’s chat show alongside George Michael, wearing a cowboy hat and seeming more comfortably ‘out’ than Wham’s lead singer. One challenge in writing Tippett’s biography was to dig beneath the entertaining anecdotes about this Grand Old Man of British Music (who seemed neither Grand, Old, nor markedly British), and find what sorrows and secrets were stowed away beneath his cheerfulness. The main events of his life were well known, not least the two months he spent in Wormwood Scrubs during World War II for refusing to comply with the terms of his exemption from military service. But much else was murky, and I became especially intrigued by his political activities in the 1930s, that decade of political division so often said to mirror our own. Tippett lived many lives before settling down to composition. ★e wrote his first ‘official’ work when he was 30, and was not able to devote his time to composition until he was 46. Yet a recent airing of his Symphony in B flat (written when he was 28 and later withdrawn) revealed an ambitious and morethan-competent work, and his originality of mind and devotion to composition were apparent even when he was at school. ★ardly the typical attributes of a late starter. Like so many left-leaning artists of his generation, faced with the fall-out of the Great Depression and with the real and growing prospect of fascism, Tippett had been for a while a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. ★e soon found the aims of Marxism incompatible with the news coming from Russia of Stalin’s repression, and his views quickly settled themselves on the side of the exiled Leon Trotsky. While Stalin preached ‘Socialism in one country’ (the Soviet Union), Trotskyists were committed to perpetual and worldwide revolution. Tippett’s correspondence of the time glitters with revolutionary fire, and an approval of needful insurrectionary violence. ★e was certain in his belief – typical for a Trotskyist of the day – that it was better to overturn the British Empire than the German dictatorship. ‘My one hope is that the British Empire will go under and ★itler win […]. I hate the Empire as I hate nothing else. It is the key pin of world capitalism and it’s our job to bring it to the ground.’ But, says Ian Kemp’s official – and composerapproved – account of Tippett’s life, ‘he never joined a Trotskyist party and never got involved with sticky political in-fighting’. Neither statement is true. I had come across glancing references to Tippett’s having been a member of the Youth Militant Group, a Trotskyist party in the Labour Party that eventually numbered several hundred members nationally. My
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