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Sir Michael Tippett: Interview

Sir Michael Tippett was a British composer noted for his operasincluding The Midsummer Marriage, King Priam, The Knot Garden—for which, on the advice of T.S. Eliot Tippett he wrote his own libretti. As a composer he was somewhat of a late developer who first attracted major notice with his choral work A Child of Our Time (1944). His output includes several other major choral works (The Mask of Time, The Vision of Saint Augustine, Byzantium), symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, etc.

Tippett was still composing into his nineties. His last major work was The Rose Lake.

Tippett’s music, and Tippett the man, began to interest me after some radio and television programs about the composer and his music made by the BBC. I first heard A Child of Our Time in the winter of 1971, after walking in pouring rain to the Royal Festival Hall, London. My shoes let in water and my clothes were soaking but soon only the power of the music remained. At the end of the work I noticed that Tippett was sitting in the audience below me and he rose to take an ovation. Later he came to Ottawa to conduct A Child of Our Time at the National Arts Center.

I was lucky to be in London in 1995, during Tippett’s 90th birthday festivities, when much of his music was performed in London. At the end of each concert a sprightly Tippett would be led onto the stage by his friend, Meirion Bowen. I had read Tippett’s essays, such as his collection Moving into Aquarius, and having heard much of his music decided that I must meet the composer. Through a secretary I set up a meeting in the house Tippett now rented in a west London suburb. The date was June 1996. Tippett was now 91 and I was warned that he tired easily and that at most I could have an hour with him.

I was shown into the back room overlooking a garden with the river Thames in the background. Tippett reclined in a chair but seemed agile, alert and full of energy. He had a very wry sense of humour and enjoyed poking fun at me, partly for being a scientist and partly for asking so many questions. Although I was a total stranger to him he rapidly established a feeling of affection between us. Soon he was calling for a bottle of wine which we drank together—the permitted hour stretched into two and then three. By the time my cassette in the tape recorder had run out. I didn’t want to disturb the atmosphere by putting in a new blank tape, we just talked on.

I began by describing a book I intended to write on the way spirit manifests itself within the material world. I felt that music represented the most perfect marriage of spirit and matter.

Tippett: One of the things that comes out of music is that it is a performing art. As any Native American will tell you. So it isn’t there in the score.

Peat: Native Americans would say the songs are living beings and have an existence apart from performance.

Tippett: Possibly.

Peat: In your case how do you allow for this spirit to manifest itself? What role do you play personally?

Tippett: I leave something pending—the song if you like—that would depend always on performance, which is the real thing that happens in the place with the people.

Peat: Having talked to sculptors and painters I get the sense that they begin with intention, with building up a sense of intention, and then step aside in such a way so that no personal history is involved. In this way something else comes though.

Tippett: I’m much the same. Its difficult. I’m outside the music I’ve made, I have no interest in it. I’ve made it and so much has gone into it that came from all sorts of forces. The nearest figure to myself would be Shakespeare. It involves disparate elements of the theatre…the theatre to me is the thing I belong to, going back a long, long way. Theatre being a very embrasive term. Opera would be one particular form, also symphonies.

Characters are an extreme form of it…in Shakespeare’s theatre. I’m trying to say that this is something special for myself. You can attempt to have a kind of non-living music, and various composers feel they can put it onto a perfect disc or something. I have no feeling like that at all. I like the performance and each performer does it differently.

Peat: Does what differently?

Tippett: That’s more complicated.

For me it’s the performer and audience. Every performer may be standing with his back to the audience and he knows them collectively through his back. His technique can help the singers.

Churches and temples were also theatres. Greek theatre went on for a very long time. For me it’s the original, I don’t go further back than the Greek theatre.

I asked Tippett to reflect on the two gods, Apollo and Dionysus. The philosopher Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedysuggested that civilization represents an encounter between the two gods. Benjamin Britten’s opera, Death In Venice explores, in the mind of von Aschenbach, his dilemma in always having adhered to Apollo’s clear light of reason but is now falling under the seduction of Dionysus. In this sense Britten’s opera is about music, about composing, just as Sosostris’s Aria from Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage is about his own position, as the composer-medium. Tippett replied by referring me to the Greek images of the two gods. He even hunted around in his room for a Greek medallion.

Tippett: Yes, go and see it—the meeting of Dionysus and Apollo on one of the Greek vases. This period when the Greeks were not so alone. They reached into the Middle East and their theatre went on for about a thousand years, changing. There is a history of their theatre and their techniques. The location itself—it was a strange piece of acoustics. There is a picture of Apollo meeting Dionysus. Dionysus is dressed in silks out of a sensual physical world. Apollo looked like a Greek Apollo. It’s a famous picture. Read Greeks and the Irrational by E.R. Dodds who discusses what the irrational meant right the way back.

It used to be thought that the Appolonian view… (that meeting) it’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for Blake.

I mentioned that I’d recently seen Tippett’s opera Midsummer Marriage at the Royal Opera House, London.

Tippett: It was a first work, a plumcake of a work. There are not many performances now. Covent Garden was rather absurd because it was done exactly as the instructions I had left for the first performance. They were regarded as final. But of course they were not. My other music is not so rich. It is spare and not (lucid?).

I then began to ask Tippett about the idea of possession, the artist who works through possession and about the role of the gods. I mentioned the story that the Hindu god Shiva danced the world into existence.

Peat: In your essays you have talked about possession.

Tippett: The terms you use! Language is very difficult. When we use terms we get confused, yet we have no other ways. Shiva danced the world into existence…that’s a very nice thought. Then there are Song Lines. It began for me with a fascination with anthropology as a source of…of what? I don’t know. It’s so difficult. Possession exists. Jung was very helpful on this point. There is no invocation, no act of will. The projection or propositions…I can invent them by the yard but only certain ones will do…by accretion…they have to be seminal in some way and then I’m very gradual.

Eliot and I talked a lot. He said ‘the words come last.; With other poets, on the contrary, it’s sudden and there it is, they accept it. It appears to me like that. There is long period before you write. You may be doing more than once thing at once.

Beethoven suppressed everything, his personal life disappeared until he was locked inside. That is a figure quite extreme, so what came out in the end…he works away at several things at once and sets them aside. He lived completely in this world of imagination and you pay a price. The body takes over.

Jung puts it well. If you live in the world of ideas and imagination as though there was no body, your body will react medically. He himself had to have some sort of different world, he used to row down the lake, and he built his tower brick by brick. He was a doctor, a remarkable one.

I told him that although I was born in England I had lived for over thirty years in Canada and had now moved to Italy.

Tippett: I’ve never wanted to live in that way. I have done it, but again Shakespeare fascinated me. He hardly ever left the country. His imagination was world-wide though reading.

My body got upset from time to time. A thing that is going to be sung or performed has that tension, and it’s done in the body itself. You sing and the body in the end…it did in the end have bowel cancer. It gets tired of being the endless servant of something.

Peat: As you say this I’m thinking of Cézanne and the importance he give to his sensations before nature. And these sensations had to be held inside him. I get the sense that there was a certain pain in holding these sensations and then trying to realize them.

Tippett: True. I learned it early on. There was a painter, Roger Fry. He had a cousin Lewis Fry who had private money and lived on the edge of London near where I had a small choir which I used to conduct to find out what I wanted in sound, how a thing worked, how the English language worked. One of the ones who sang was a daughter of Lewis Fry. She was a mature woman, I was still a student in my 20s. They had a substantial house looking over the valley and Lewishad his own studio. The daughter asked me to come occasionally to have supper to talk to her father. One occasion he wanted to talk with someone who could understand a bit about what he was trying to do. He said, ‘look at the painting on the easel. My trouble is that I can’t put upon the canvas what I want you to feel from the canvas.’

But I knew I could in music. I’d be able to do it.

You have to make it…Beethoven had it in excelsis. Every thing he ever did speaks to you. But Beethoven’s body gave up, Mozart gave up even sooner.

Tippett then showed me a painting The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Oskar Kokoschka.

Tippett: I knew Kokoschka. The painting has two sides, one is Mania and the other is the opposite, Anima. How deep it all goes. He was a person who was possessed, by both anima and mania, very often in the form of a woman.

Music has a tactical difference because it is a performance and needs the audience. I know the advantage in widening the scope of where the music can be heard, radio, disc and not everyone in same theatre.

Peat: Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist, gave up all personal performance. He felt the future of music lay in the recording studio where he could work on a piece over and over again. He even predicted that people would eventually be able to create their own performances at home out of various musical samples.

Tippett: That is not me. He is rather foreign to me personally. The Canadian I know best is Timothy Findley.

Peat: Could we go back to the way you had to hold the tension of music within your body as you composed.

Tippett: The body suffered in my case. Berlioz writing Les Troyens, he had what was called then ‘intestinal catarrh’ and he took laudanum. He was drugged to sleep by it during all the long months and years of making this huge piece.

Conductors don’t suffer, they are part of the performance. The difference between a string quartet, they meet every day and go on tour, or a pianist. But the orchestras don’t. The nearest thing is the one who writes the drama and has to contain it. In a strict concert hall it’s all enacted there and then. But as soon as you go into the live theatre then we’re already in another world, something has to be there to perform to us.

The Greeks for a long time had only two characters on stage at one time. You went in the daytime and sat on stone seats, very uncomfortable. It was a strange society. Each city state had its theatre and a temple which was part of turning stone and marble into delicacy.

Peat: A composer has to support this tension in the body, yet the result has an effect on a whole of society.

Tippett: Yes that’s close to me, a healing in the music.

There can’t be a shared meaning today. Jung wanted to know if it was possible to get any nearer to the period of the Renaissance when people were apparently entire. That’s in The Child of Our Time. ‘I would know my shadow and my light’ (‘so shall at last be whole.)

Possibly you could find this wholeness. But did he believe it in art? I think you could become a whole human being—a single human being. I don’t think he thought it could exist in communities. I certainly don’t think so. Communities do what they have always done.

But the Greek theatre was still part of a city state with its own temple and theatre. But once they began to take the temple at Athens as the center things changed.

And the Greek sculptor—I don’t think he was very different from any of us. Yeats spoke of artifacts—things made by humans. He said ‘I can understand the excitement a god feels in getting into a statue.’ He felt ‘artifact’ was something he made from time to time. I think we’re all pretty odd.

Peat: Making is bringing something into manifestation. But in music, does that have to be manifest? To have been made? What about Bach and The Art of Fugue? It was pure, absolute music, maybe it was never meant to be performed.

Tippett: It didn’t have any meaning. He was practising his art. He left plenty behind that disappeared.

Peat: But isn’t it true that for other composers the physical nature of the sound is important?

Tippett: Yes and it’s partly to do with history. Perform the work somewhere else where there was no oboe d’amore player and it was performed on something else. That was going on in that period.

Peat: I’m trying to get to the idea of the physical sound itself, as opposed to some sort of abstract Appolonian structure

Tippett: It would be rather boring if such a thing could exist, the Appolonian.

Peat: I’ve talked to some sculptors who spoke about their work as involving an alchemical transformation—the matter itself changes. That is spirit changing matter. But I also wonder if spirit itself can be transformed by matter in its act of manifestation? Maybe it’s similar to language. When you write, you move into the world of language. In one sense you use language and in another sense language uses you.

Tippett: You can if you’re using language in an artistic way.

Peat: But then to what extent is the physicality of the world—to what extent is it something coming through you and onto a score?

Tippett: Yes, that’s one sort of attempt.

Peat: But the other, the sheer physicality of sound and voices and resonances. How does that transform the act of composition?

Tippett: It does not transform, it’s the material you are using for the purpose. Poetry is the most fascinating. As soon as it begins the poetry has changed the thing into something extra, and therefore we know somehow prose can go over into poetry. But your question is about the physical thing, what does that do? I don’t know.

Peat: We’re circling around matter and spirit and one of the things that concerns me, I give talks in the United States quite a lot, is the way some people want to deny the physical, the fact of their own bodies, and try to live in the world of spirit. They want to float off the earth. A Jungian could call that psychic inflation.

Tippett: Of course, yes.

Peat: So I’m asking about the other side, the spirit entering matter, incarnation.

Tippett: I know about it. When you say incarnation you are really using a very odd word. That might be one of the things that is troubling the present period. We’re not in a golden age.

It appears to me that we get periods in history in which the problems seem to be both in the material and the non-material worlds…both at once. We’re in that now, a place when nobody can find things. The Jungians should be able to—you’ve read the Eranos yearbooks? Jung attempted to try to bridge this gulf. But he did not succeed. I got some wonderful ideas from reading the yearbooks, particularly on Time—nature has different times.

Peat: I think time is probably the most puzzling question for physicists.

Tippett: Naturally.

Peat: Time in physics does not understand about generation and creativity.

Tippett: The Mask of Time (one of Tippett’s choral works) begins ‘sound where no airs blow.’ That physically is impossible but I’ve seen it. It’s a metaphor I use.  Therefore I quote from one of Yeats’s poems ‘All metaphor, Malachi. Its all metaphor.’ Well, that’s a bit extreme, but the way the art world is dipping into that metaphorical world, but it’s material, what it’s made with is material.

Music remains the most strange of the materials because we don’t understand what happens when music moves you, who or what moves you. It isn’t easy at all. It’s a strangely—in (modern?) German philosophy, music was on the top and sculpture on the bottom. I couldn’t go as far as that. But the famous remark ‘all art tends to the condition of music.’ It was made about Giorgione, not about music at all! That’s another way of saying we all want to enter this strange world. I think I understand it up to a point.

The conversation began to turn to Tippett’s age, he was 91 at the time of our meeting.

Tippett: I’ve lived for a very long time so that you are living over many periods. Who am I contemporary with? I’m not contemporary with anything.

Peat: Raves?

Tippett: Well, yes. We all do it ourselves. But it isn’t really true, they didn’t make it themselves.

But the more difficult ones are the ones who fall out.

Jung himself didn’t get much out of music. You can’t get it out of everything. He was a practicing psychologist, an absolutely seminal figure. He then went over into the world of art because he recognized something there. What he meant by ‘art’ I don’t quite know. He was a pastor’s son but he believed—though he might retain an older religious form—but felt that when a patient came to him he always thought from the lowest depths. His own first dream predicts the whole thing—going down and down and reaching the bottom and then beginning to come up again.

This is what could be done if you want to do it. But if he thought it was happening in society…I don’t know. He wrote Wotan. This was because of the first result of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and he wanted to know what relationship it would take in another country. He said, it isn’t Zarathustra who has come back but Wotan!. In A Child of Our Time—a mixed art—it is the ‘soul watching the chaotic mirror knows that the gods will return.’ But which gods?

During our discussion earlier Tippett spoke about laying himself open to possession when he composed. The god was free to come but Tippett could never know which god would appear. It was something he had to do on trust.

Peat: It was very significant that Negro spirituals play such a powerful role in the piece.

Tippett: They have gone nearly all over the world. You don’t get it except where they were singing.

They couldn’t perform it in Israel because they couldn’t publicly use the word ‘Jesus.’ They had to get over that before they could perform the Bach chorals!

A Child of Our Time refers to a real incident in which a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grynspan, in desperation at his failure to get official papers and the persecution of his mother, shot a German diplomat Ernst von Rath and precipitated a pogrom against the Jews. ‘He shoots the officialbut he shoots only his dark brotherand seehe is dead.

Tippett: The father [of Herschel] was already in Israel and was brought to that performance. He was in tears most of the time and had no idea what had happened to his son.

I was persona non grata in Israel.

(When I was thinking about the piece…) I heard something though the radio, a singer. And by the tone of the voice it was a Black singer, I don’t know. He suddenly sang ‘The trumpets sound.’ I realized it was like a choral. It was a banal piece of tune and yet it does something. What did it do and how did it do it? I sent to the US to get a copy. It was just like what Bach did with the book of chorals. He opened the book and chose what he wanted. I found there was a spiritual for every known spiritual need. I chose the five—it was in no way different from Bach. It told a story which was tragic.

I asked him about his also drawing on the Blues for use in one of his symphonies.

Tippett: The blues…they are like the fugue in 18th century. It’s probably the music that belongs most to our time. These are technical things.

Peat: Maybe that is the answer to what I was seeking. The matter is the structure, the choral, fugue, blues or whatever. Maybe these are structures that are determined somewhere at the level of our physical bodies?

Tippett: That is how you see it. I don’t know. I’ve been a practicing composer and had to live in that world. But you come out of it if you can. It’s difficult. You pay a price which you willingly do. Or you are driven to.

Peat: You once wrote that if you didn’t do this, the body would pay you back.

Tippett: Yes, it did. You’d have to do it or get ill. It happens to heaps of people. Or you go over the edge. A person gets more and more into this strange world, but in the end he topples over because that is the danger.

You have to… Another thing occurs to me, a figure I know. He was Jewish but broke away and married a gentile, went to the Maharishi and god knows what. Then he finds a woman in Holland and sits on her lap. He says he was annoyed with his mother-in-law, who is a marriage guidance councillor, and says she should get peace of spirit.

‘But that’s the point,’ he says, ‘she’s there to help people who are not there. She can’t herself get detachment.’ And then he said the same thing to me. I said, ‘it’s even stupider!’

It’s vital to me to keep that chaos. There is a wonderful quote, and its probably from Nietzsche. ‘One must have chaos within oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.’ The dancing star is there—the material, the whole thing.

We don’t know what this universe is. I remain a humanist, as I must. That is the condition I’m talking to.

We are a very curious race. In other words, Eliot put it— ‘these things I shore against my ruins.’ He knew it but he went into the Anglican faith and lost something but…

Holding the chaos. That’s….I have to be there as a human being and… [pause and Tippett begins to speak of the ending of his own creativity]… I’ve finished now. I’ve stopped. It stopped. It’s very curious. It happened about three years ago. And now I have had to make a new lifestyle in which it doesn’t exist.

I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help you, only deepened your anxiety.

Peat: I have to keep the chaos inside me.

I then tell him about my association with David Bohm, about Bohm’s search for wholeness in physics yet the sense of fragmentation be must have experienced inside himself and the depression he suffered at the end of his life.

Tippett: That’s the sort of thing I might pick up. I used to write those sort of things in a note book but I never said where I got them from. I like that.