Sir Michael Tippett: Symphony no. 1

performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox, or below by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis

Sir Michael Kemp Tippett was born on 2 January, 1905 in Eastcote, London. His father was a singer, or rather a businessman who sang very well. Michael began piano lessons very young, apparently at age 4, as part of his education “with a nursery governess and various private tutors,” says Wikipedia, citing Ian Kemp’s Tippett: the Composer and his MusicFive years later, in 1914, he began boarding at Brookfield Preparatory School in Swanage, Dorset. Four more years later, he earned a scholarship to Fettes College, actually another boarding school, in Edinburgh, where he had yet more exposure to music, but was unhappy there largely because of ubiquitous bullying. Later he found himself at Stamford School in Lincolnshire, where Malcolm Sargent had once been a pupil. This seems significant only in light of later events.

By this time, Tippett’s father Henry had decided to move to France for work, but his sons stayed in England, visiting on holidays. At Stamford, Tippett was introduced to composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin by his piano teacher Frances Tinkler. It seems odd that in the early twentieth century, with a music student of Tippett’s apparent interest in music, that these would be the students to whom he was introduced. Rather late, no? In any case, he had decided he would become a composer, which his parents didn’t care for. Wiki even says Malcolm Sargent himself, who heard him perform once at Stamford, also discouraged this. Actually, it says:

Despite his parents’ wish that he follow an orthodox path by proceeding to Cambridge University, Tippett had firmly decided on a career as a composer, a prospect that alarmed them and was discouraged by his headmaster and by Sargent.

I’m not sure if it was the prospect of pursuing music or leaving it that discouraged Sargent, but it seems from the above that it was the former. I wonder why.

Ultimately, though, Tippett’s father was convinced that his son should pursue music, and he supported his son by arranging his studies at the Royal College of Music, where he was accepted despite lacking the qualifications necessary. At this time, he was 18, and began his studies with Charles Wood, until his death, where Tippett studied under C.H. Kitson, and then even under Adrian Boult and Malcolm Sargent himself. He left the RCM after passing his Bachelor of Music degree (on his second try) and stopped his studies there, moving on to composing.

His first symphony comes after a period of earliest works, such as the oratorio A Child of Our Time, a great success, and after his imprisonment for refusing WWII military service. The first symphony was completed right after the war, in 1945. Of the work’s composition, Wiki tells us:

Tippett began to think about writing a symphony while in prison in 1943. He had already written one symphony (in B flat) but rejected it as immature and over-influenced by Sibelius.

I watched some conductor in a brief interview recently and he said something to the effect that English musicians for whatever reason still see Sibelius as “our composer”, that there’s some sense of relation or belonging in his music. We certainly heard it in Walton’s symphony, but it seems Tippett wanted to avoid that.

This work is certainly not the composer’s most famous, and in fact I’d say his symphonies are not among his best-known works, but it’s at least a good place to start, no? Actually, and somewhat confusingly, James Leonard says at AllMusic:

Tippett had five style periods, but not all of Tippett‘s periods are equal. For some, his lyrical earliest works culminating in his oratorio A Child of Our Time in 1941 were his best. For others, his experimental middle works culminating in the opera New Year in 1988 are his best. For a few, his luminous final works culminating in the tone poem The Rose Lake in 1993, were the best. But for many if not most listeners, the works of his first maturity starting with the First Symphony of 1945 and culminating in the opera The Midsummer Marriage in 1952 were his best.

So maybe that “first maturity” period is a good place to start. The above (with link there) comes from a review of the Bournemouth Symphony album that also features the piano concerto, which Leonard spends most of his review discussing.


His first symphony is a four-movement work that plays for about 37 minutes, one that is “exuberant rather than refined.” I wouldn’t necessarily say it lacks refinement, necessarily, as much as maybe…. cohesion? The first movement is marked Allegro vigoroso, quasi alla breve. It’s full of bold rhythms, but not in the sense of, say, Stravinsky. It’s got kind of a rebellious neoclassical sound. There’s oodles of color and texture, like many conversations going on in the same room, or one conversation that passes between people quickly, different contributors jumping in. Wiki refers to it as “energetic and rhythmically insistent,” and we hear counterpoint and that same opening gesture here and there. It’s interesting, but I really have to say it doesn’t thrill me that much.

The adagio is the longest movement of the work, and is suddenly serious, even grave, with timpani strikes. The initial grimness cools off, and the movement broadens out a bit, but there’s still a dark atmosphere to the music, which Wiki says is “a darkly mysterious ground bass with variations, in Purcellian manner.” Now that’s something an English composer can claim as their own, huh? I should say that the first movement is plenty well constructed, and I have no criticisms except that it just doesn’t interest me a whole lot. This second movement, though, with its oboe and cello solos, and other more intimate, chambery utterances, is one of the stronger points of this symphony, outstandingly compelling.

The final two movements are much shorter than those that precede them. The third is a lively scherzo, more of the bubbly energy we found in the first movement, but in a more compact form. It too is chattery, save a few swells of symphonic sound, eventually leading to “a pavan-like trio scored for the strings.” It’s fine.

The finale is lots of counterpoint, and it might be the most convincing movement of the whole work. I will say I’ve listened to almost nothing else from Tippett’s pen, but I have this impression of him, again, as a kind of rebellious neoclassicist, a master of traditional compositional forms like the fugue, and the use of the ground bass in the second movement, and I’m feeling much better about my interest level in this movement. Excitingly, Wiki tells us that “the work ends in a wholly unexpected way,” but only after giving a bit of spoiler as to how it does indeed end, and this may be the most interesting part of the work.

I find the work itself interesting, but it doesn’t really hold my interest, if that makes sense. I mean ‘interesting’ in the sense of a kind of novelty, slightly different, quirky. And that’s fine. I don’t have any criticisms against it except I don’t find myself terribly excited about hearing it. The second movement has some more gripping passages, and by the time we get to the finale, I feel like we’ve reached some kind of solid ground, home in a sense, with the counterpoint and double fugue, and then to have the piece end the way it does calls the atmosphere of almost the entire work into question, which is redeeming enough a quality, a big enough question mark that I might just come back for a few more passes to try to reconcile it.

I’ll admit this is one of those works I included because Tippett couldn’t go without a mention, especially because he’s written four symphonies. He was more of an obligatory inclusion, but that’s not to say he doesn’t deserve it. He’s clearly a composer of great (and unique) talent, and I’ll have to get around to hearing more of his work, but it seems that won’t happen for some time.

In any case, he was one of the more household English composer names, one of the last of those in the series, with another one this weekend. I’d argue that the names you don’t recognize are at least as significant as the ones you do know, if not more so. But that’s history, and hopefully through some of these articles, we can cast some light on (or blow the dust off of, whichever you prefer) some of these works that have not gotten the attention they deserve.

There’s some truly outstanding music coming up from some people who I’d argue should have their own season-long features with world-class orchestras, box-set releases, pre-concert lectures, all the rest. I feel strongly that some of these folks might be the next big symphonic discovery, you know, the composer whose work was too ahead of its time to be appreciated while he was alive, that kind of thing. So stay tuned.


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