Michael Tippett 55 BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE rhythmic invention at which he arrived in his String Quartet No. 1 seemed to be put on hold, as he wrote first a Trotskyist agitprop play entitled War Ramp, and then composed scores for agitprop ballets, one orchestrated ‘for a very odd collection of wood blocks, tin cans, etc’. A setting of Blake’s A Song of Liberty, which praises the revolutions in Europe and America, seems to be nothing short of Tippett’s call to arms: 63 pages of thorny recitative finally conclude that ‘empire is no more’. Political involvement acted like a dam, diverting the course of his compositions for the best part of a decade. All of these incendiary scores he eventually destroyed or withdrew. Even his famous oratorio A Child of Our Time, inspired by the assassination of a Nazi official by the Polish-jewish refugee ★erschel Grynszpan, and the resulting ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom, is cast in a striking new light by knowledge of Tippett’s political involvement. Grynszpan, universalised in the oratorio as society’s outcast, was regarded by Tippett as the ideal: the youth who turns a gun on authority. Trotsky stated his ‘open moral solidarity’ with Grynszpan, concluding that the attack ‘may serve as an example for every young revolutionist’. Even Tippett’s famous idea of studding the work with spirituals, as contemporary parallels to the Lutheran chorales in Bach’s Passions, recalls his political work in the previous decade. ★e had become involved with a number of politically inclined pageants, vast affairs with casts of thousands staged in venues such as the Wembley Stadium or the Crystal Palace, and had worked ‘‘ Tippett travelled to southern France to smuggle money over the border to help Trotskyists in the Spanish Civil War ’’ ‘For Empire is no more!’: (far left) the original cast of Tippett’s Robin Hood, 1934; (left) Herschel Grynszpan, who inspired A Child of Our Time; (below) composer Alan Bush, a committed communist and personal friend of Tippett’s with the theatrical-duo Edward Genn and Matthew Anderson, whose Lancashire Cotton Pageant, performed in Manchester in 1932, had included spirituals. Among his close friends of the time was composer Alan Bush, who had reconfigured ★andel’s oratorio Belshazzar as a political pageant at the Scala Theatre in Camden; the structural basis of A Child of Our Time was ★andel’s Messiah. But as A Child of Our Time progressed, Tippett was emotionally recalibrating himself. ★e quickly turned his back on a belief in the needful violence of revolution, coming to think his Trotskyism was merely a projection of inner turmoil, especially when a consuming love affair stuttered to a painful halt. A period of Jungian therapy eased his heart, and the looming prospect of war focused his mind. ★e was able to give up his revolutionary politics and, with uncanny synchronicity, embarked upon his first ‘mature’ works. A Child of Our Time comes from a political mind on the cusp, daringly sympathetic towards a murderous figure, portraying an act that its composer would once have believed justifiably violent, but inviting the conclusion that no good political effect has been achieved bar further suffering. By the time Tippett completed the oratorio’s composition, he was devoting himself to the Peace Pledge Union, and the final spiritual, ‘Deep River’, longs for a ‘land where all is peace’. The oratorio lay in a drawer until its premiere, in Blitz-crushed London, in March 1944, by which time its composer had been to prison. Reviews were favourable; Tippett had begun his slow journey to acclaim. By 1948 he was happily undertaking a commission to celebrate the birth of Prince Charles. The extent of his Trotskyism was a well-kept secret. The initials of the British Empire, which he had once hated so much, were soon swagged around his name as he was made a CBE. A knighthood followed, accepted with a cheery scepticism. Through his long career, as he first destroyed and then rebuilt the billowing lyricism of his earliest works, he seemed to undergo that peculiar mellowing that comes to most successful artists, as they shift from leftwing rebel to establishment figure – although, if his outfits and, most of all, his music are anything to go by, joining an establishment was simply a means of probing it from within. ★is strange journey from national traitor to national treasure was complete. Michael Tippett: The Oliver Soden’s book Biography is published on 18 April (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
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