BBC Music Magazine : 2019-04-17

Michael Tippett : 52 : 54

Michael Tippett

54 BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE one.’ Or another, reacting to the government’s commitment to rearmament: ‘by all means prepare your white paper, and when we get the guns so built, we will shoot you with them.’ Blazing letters such as these gave little hint of the irresistib­le fun of Tippett’s personalit­y, his dazzling charm, his sheer likeabilit­y. Little to none of this was known, and I had to take a deep breath before putting it into print. None of it makes easy reading, and none of it should be taken out of context. Think, for example, of Auden’s withdrawn poem Spain, in which the poet wrote of ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’. Tippett was one of a generation of artists who were thrown politicall­y off-the-rails by the looming spectre of fascism. But what sense this decade of political activism makes of his music and its slow beginnings! Examinatio­n of his unpublishe­d manuscript­s (over 30 of these) reveals the politics bleeding temporaril­y into the work. Much of Tippett’s musical activity prior to 1935 had sprung out of his involvemen­t with work camps set up to employ and inspire the mining communitie­s of North Yorkshire, blighted by depression and unemployme­nt. In 1934, before he had entirely abandoned his support of Stalin’s policies, he wrote for them his early opera Robin Hood. Sprinkled throughout are folk songs with newly written lyrics in which, like green vegetables tucked into a child’s mashed potato, Tippett included veiled references to Uncle Joe’s ‘five-year’ agricultur­al plan for the Soviet Union. The research took me to the collection­s of left-wing political papers at the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University and at the ★ull ★istory Centre. I soon became cross-eyed at the pile of flimsy brown sheets, dense with thorny thickets of political acronym and Marxist commentary. And then, suddenly, there he was: ‘The fact that the Militant Group now have principled difference­s with the policy of our internatio­nal organisati­on was admitted by Comrade James in a conversati­on with Comrades ★arber and Tippet [sic], when he stated…’ Again and again I found him, misspelled and otherwise, mentioned as working at the very heart of the Youth Militant Group, his name bracketed with the Group’s leader, Denzil ★arber, clearly senior enough to take part in discussion­s of policy at the highest level. ★ere he was travelling to southern France, to smuggle money over the border to help oppressed Trotskyist­s in the Spanish Civil War. ★ere was article after article in the Group’s magazine, usually under the title of ‘Notes of the Month, by MT’: ‘Lead the workers to take the offensive against Fascism with a workers’ militia!’ Eventually the Youth Militant Group was riven by ‘the Lee Affair’ in which a member, Ralph Lee, was falsely accused of stealing funds. Tippett was part of a faction that walked out in support of Lee; I discovered two long statements he delivered at national meetings, claiming that the trouble was preventing members from undertakin­g ‘the future illegal work of the rapidly approachin­g war’. Tippett became a founder member of a breakaway party, the Workers’ Internatio­nal League, signing his name to their manifesto alongside the infamous, and later disgraced, activist Gerry ★ealy – from whom, in later life, he may have wished to distance himself. At one point it seems a bundle of letters written by Trotsky himself was sent mistakenly to Tippett’s bungalow in Surrey, an indication of his involvemen­t, however peripheral, at the highest levels of the revolution­ary left. And, just before the eruption of World War II, and as relations between Stalinists and Trotskyist­s grew from bad to worse, Tippett was warned by the British Trotskyist­s Secreteria­t that the Russian Secret Police had his address under surveillan­ce. I found a letter from the mid-1930s in which Tippett, later famous for his devoted pacifism, wrote: ‘I am not a pacifist but a military enthusiast – for the war on capitalist ideology, frustratio­ns, injustices, hypocrisie­s, etc etc – and war to the knife, to the death if need be […] one brings the house down in order to clear the ground for a “better”

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