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Michael Tippett in interview (1975)

Sir Michael Tippett Interviewed by Mike Thorne 1975– interviewed for Hi-Fi News and Record Review by Mike Thorne

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On the second of January [1975], Sir Michael Tippett celebrates his seventieth birthday. In June 1972 his third and largest symphony was first performed, drawing on sources as disparate as Beethoven and the Blues, and the recording is released this month. He is presently working on a fourth large-scale opera, The Ice Break, which is nearing completion and due for first performance at Covent Garden in 1977. A visit to London in November, from his home in Wiltshire, was partly to attend rehearsal and performance by the LPO under Bernard Haitnik of the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme by Corelli. But there was some time to talk to Michael Thorne.

‘The shape of the opera has been finalised for about three years. It will be the end of a long period of hard work, dealing with it not only in verbal terms but in musical concepts; this is where you find the advantage of your own libretto, for you can work with yourself. If materials are invented by you, and are not just a screenplay of some story, then you have time to play with them and reach a libretto which is so related to the operatic intentions that it fits the music like a glove to a finger.

‘When we come to modern theatre and TV, our notions of how fast things should happen have changed. We don’t need the long explanations, which makes for a different kind of opera. So that a new tradition is being made; for example, I reach Knot Garden, which is really in the newer world. You can’t accept its rapidity unless you’ve seen TV or films; instant changes of scene and the ability to see the emotional mood in just minutes, not tens of minutes.

‘The new opera will continue this process, but I think Knot Garden was as far as anyone could go in compression; it may be that this worked better for the closed group, in the old tradition of Cosi fan tutte. However, I’ve put the choruses back on stage and it’s bigger altogether. There is more story-line this time, but it operates on more than one level – this is the difficulty the moment you begin to talk about it, for you get on one level and leave the other out, and this results in great confusions. The title is The Ice Break, really a metaphor for spring. This is the notion of great northern rivers whose ice breaks in spring with a most frightening sound, so that if you were there you would be cut to pieces as the edges grind away.

‘It’s something to do with possible spring, on the general side. But it’s about what happens to stereotypes of our society in general, certainly why we divide out to have traumatic shoot-ups and so on … but you shouldn’t go far down this one, it doesn’t work. Things are picked up from what you write and someone says “oh it’s about so-and-so” and then we have trouble later disentangling everything. The libretto is available soon. I can’t digest it and describe it, it’s so ingrained in me … the moment you pick up one thing … you must read it, that’s much better.

‘I would expect no pre-knowledge from anyone listening to my music; rather I would assume that a listener would have interests and loves among classical music, and I would like it if he was interested even further back. The third symphony is something special. Rough quotations from Schiller are twisted round by me for my own purposes, being concerned with the extra-musical thing (which is very much of our time) between the affirmations of the start of the 19th century and where they thought we would reach, and where we arrive 200 years later. This I wanted to pinpoint; and once I’d gone to a verbal end I was getting closer and closer to a famous model. And then it clicks or it doesn’t click; I’ve fought with myself a long time about the rightness of the Beethoven quotations – there’s also the big theme from the ninth in the middle, although you can hardly hear it. But the direct six bars which set everybody off seemed, when I reached this point in the composition, to be archetypal and had to go down. I can’t do better. It’s the method by which Beethoven goes over from the beautiful slow movement to the uproar of the finale. It does exactly the same in my symphony, irrespective of who wrote it: I accepted it, and it does its work. I can’t reinvent the archetype in such a way that it would work without getting confused.

‘Then, I realised its effect, for it gave musical possibilities by permitting more direct reference to that period. When I came to do the words, the line-by-line quote from the setting of the Schiller seemed reasonable enough. And once it’s done, it’s done. It would worry me if I thought allusion was needed, for there’s nothing in this which requires previous homework – I can imagine many people don’t know that the six bars are, and don’t care if they don’t.

‘The blues are a different matter, the element of confusion in the whole thing. When I began I wanted an ending of four instrumental blues. When I looked closer, it seemed it had to be vocal, and then I wanted the normal interplay between blues voice and instruments of some kind. Once I’d got that far, I looked at the articulation, what the voice had to sing and what that implied; I realised that I had four poems going from innocence to experience. And then a composite thing began to materialise, obviously comparable to the Beethoven finale. Whether you bring it off is another matter.

‘But the blues seems to me to be a form – I associate it with the 17th century, with ground basses. It fascinates me that there is something between this primitive base set of chords and the Baroque decoration on top. I decided that the first three Schiller poems could be dealt with like this, and set myself the task in the first song of an absolutely classic blues, as primitive as you can get. The model is perfectly clear: it’s a recording of Bessie Smith, St Louis Blues, which is a marvellous record that has been in my head since the thirties. Finally it comes to flower and I do it myself. But there is a problem. There is only the whole thing’s imaginative quality to hold the symphony together. The symphony has blues and something going back to Beethoven and my own whole gambit, which alone has been the start of everything for me. Again, if you bring it off, you bring it off. If you don’t, you don’t.

‘The danger is that using quotation material evokes a tradition so strong that it can seem to disturb the balance of the work. For example, after the first performance of A Child of Our Time many years ago, several critics felt just that – spirituals do not belong in an oratorio, etc. Now, they’re regarded as dead right, and I hope this will happen with the third symphony. Many people, especially those with a clear understanding of jazz traditions, can quite rightly say my blues are not real blues. But this is me. I know what I’m doing, although I don’t often get into this position. I don’t mean this as a defence, the question is simply there. It’s a risk you take.

‘You can’t know everything in a big work at a time. It gradually matures, and many then over-mature and have to be broken down again until it’s solid. I didn’t begin writing it until it was settled and the words were all there. But in the gestation period, things do change, and here is was dramatic – that forced me out of considering it in the simpler (or more difficult?) way of instrumental symphonic form. The essence was the whole business of the opening, these violent, hard chords followed by a release of energy in semiquavers, these contrasting things which begin and get wider and longer until eventually they finish. It took a long time before I realised that they were there at the end, and that they allied themselves to two kinds of song, of experience and innocence. I’m excited by the end because of the effort of getting the last brass chords and the strong answers dead right. It took me nearly a week, for the possibilities were limited. But it ends the closest I could ever get to the balance between two vitalities, one aggressive, the other compassionate. That hardly exists in the second symphony, for example.

‘It doesn’t disturb me that people can use a verbal way into the third symphony. The first performance was incredibly moving, unexpectedly so, as if it cast a shadow before it. Everybody was in expectation. And then it had this extraordinary effect. I became almost unsubjective, got drawn into this piece and watched it going on. I realised it had something. We had the same experience in Boston with this startling unity of audience, orchestra and singer. Now that is something you’ve staked your money for, and it won’t come back every time. It depends an enormous amount on the audience. So the verbal entry may make it easier for them, but it doesn’t matter.

‘A lot of modern artistic problems have been the reverse – over-emphasis of the artist’s role. They’ve stemmed from esoteric and cult worlds where the collective experience is dead. There are two approaches: one I hard stated, to my surprise, in the voice of Schoenberg on TV, saying that the great artist and the great music must be a message. That tradition is Romantic, of course, going back to Shelley: “We are the legislators of the world.” And again, you have the tradition which Stravinsky held so strongly, where there’s no message, there is the work of art; it’s on this position that I must have a tremendous hold. For example, the new opera has the Brecht business of alienation, you watch it going on. But not moving you in the sense that I, Brecht, wish you to move because the author is a member of the party. I myself must reach forward for what seem to me to be deeper issues.

‘The artist mustn’t be suffocated by social awareness. In a situation, there are always twopolarities involved between the artist and society, or the period. For example, I remember a long time ago at a Chinese exhibition seeing a bowl of most delicate china which came out of the most catastrophic social period thousands of years ago. So I’ve always had to hold on to the bowl, for f that went it would be a horrible society, for people need such as that to wish for, to touch with their hands. Therefore my tradition can’t be that of Henze’s social awareness, it’s of people like Yeats:

“The golden emithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.”

‘The deepest thing with me is that the imaginative process must tend toward something which is going to break the bonds all the time of any rigorous philosophy, rigorous religion or, indeed, any rigorous politics. Otherwise, the spontaneous element is gone.

‘I find America exciting. There is a response to a turbulent society, and not to an authoritarian, constrained society which is my problem. If I were in Russia, things would be different – I would possibly have to behave, like Shostakovich, or be liquidated, or whatever. There is not an attitude of deep social change, a mood of restlessness. And I deliberately point out in Aquarian terms that we really may be at the end of the famous “2000 years world month”, hoping to point out that what is happening gets worse before it gets better, when you’re over the change. But what does the artist do in that? He’s still making his china bowl, for it stands for some clarity in the human condition which we desperately need. Or he may be wrestling around with Paradise Lost. I know which I am.

‘In the future, I would like to see not the Opera Houses blown up, but the cults, and a resulting possibility that you let the whole world into the discussion of the new work. This may force you into extremely primitive metaphors: boy meets girl and that’s the bloody lot. Or down with the bourgeois, down with the bloody lot. Or whatever. But the excitement is what is this anonymous world public, what does it mean? The problem existed in the past, but in more limited terms, when Beethoven wrote for what appeared to be a world public but which in fact only reached as far as London from Vienna. If you arrive at metaphors of a quality which both have ability to speak to a wide range and possess a condensation of statement which makes them really exciting and poetic, that’s it.

‘There’s an “opting out” all the time now. This ache for the primitive may be fundamental, to get away, to go where you are free, to get on the outside. I can’t opt out; but also what I cannot do is go back into some tradition like Christianity and put something there which prevents that new metaphor being useable at all. I’ve got to speak, to the man on the moon in his space suit as well as the man on Top of the Pops. If I can. I must always come back to holding a sanity by doing it. I must be outside and inside – an artist must observe and yet be sympathetic with whatever means. But the basic thing is always the metaphor. And that is all for ever and ever. My great hero, Goethe, fought all his life for this balance between his fantastic, wild inspiration and the classical disciplines. You have to go on and on, fighting for a metaphor.’