Michael Tippett: The Biography by Oliver Soden review – exhaustively researched, lovingly detailed

The composer’s colourful life, rather than his musical legacy, is the focus of an epic tribute

Visionary and generous, intellectually hungry yet naive, the British composer Michael Tippett (1905-98) enjoyed an eventful life that spanned most of the 20th century. With a voracious appetite for literature and friendship, his wide circle included EM Forster, TS Eliot, WH Auden and Barbara Hepworth. He went to prison as a conscientious objector, was gay when to be so was illegal, considered marriage to one or more close women friends and agonised when unable to respond to their advances. In between, ebbing and flowing, there was the music. He wrote five operas, four symphonies, chamber music and more, as well as librettos, an autobiography and a volume of essays.

Tippett has always had his advocates, but after his death he fell into near oblivion. For the most part his compositions are neglected, the pacifist wartime choral work A Child of Our Time and a few orchestral works aside. His music is uneven, prone to adopt the latest vernacular and then appear dated. Some of it is embarrassing (“Sure, baby,” as his 1970 libretto for The Knot Garden has it). His gift was for the long phrase, the neoromantic outpouring, in an era of spiky experiment and tight control. King Priam (1962) is powerful, the other operas – The Midsummer Marriage, The Ice Break – awkward to stage, but surely worth another try. His second symphony, difficult but not unplayable, broke down at its first performance. The conductor, Adrian Boult, apologised and started again. Tippett apologised too, though it wasn’t his fault. He was that sort of person.

Yet there are so many pleasures, both grand and tender, to be found. Two decades after he died – an apparently statutory interval before reassessing the culturally unfashionable – Tippett renewal is in the air. Oliver Soden’s bumper new authorised biography (seriously bumper: around 600 pages of text, 150 pages of notes and index), the first full-length life, should fire interest. A John Bridcut documentary, made with Soden, is in the offing, and an exhibition on the composer’s life has opened at the Red House in Aldeburgh, former home of his younger contemporary Benjamin Britten.

Tippett was a late starter, whereas Britten was precocious; he was slow to work, whereas Britten was fast and fluent; and, unlike Britten, he wasn’t instinctive. Nor was he the amateur some would suggest (indefatigable though he was in helping real amateurs to make music, at Morley College and elsewhere). It’s a tribute to Tippett, or more so to Britten, who was merciless in dropping friends for the smallest offence, that the two remained on good terms. The older composer never wrote anything to match Peter Grimes. Nor did he achieve the success of Britten, who may never have feared him as a rival. Tippett’s strange radiance is harder to grasp or sum up.

Exhaustively researched, lovingly detailed, epic in scale, revelling in gossip, stuffed with information, this book furnishes every event, major and minor, from birth to death, with comment, observation, quotation. Unpublished letters, diaries, audio tapes and recollections from friends have fuelled the narrative. Each page seethes with anecdote, episode and excursion. At times I wondered whether I could justify so many hours spent absorbed in the composer’s tumultuous love life; his politics; his double pneumonia; troubled friends’ breakdowns and, in some instances, suicide; the cost of his house or its refurbishment; or the state of his parents’ sex life or his own, fascinating though it is.

Soden’s irresistible attraction to metaphor sometimes clogs his well-marshalled prose. While some judicious, or even savage, editing would have been welcome – there’s a slimmer book struggling to get out – we should accept and enjoy this super-abundant, loving account. Its like will not come again.

Tippett at home at Corsham, Wiltshire, in 1964
Tippett at home at Corsham, Wiltshire, in 1964. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

The Tippett milieu is a fertile subject from the off. He grew up in an eccentric English family, his mother a suffragette, briefly detained in Holloway prison, who expected her younger son, Michael, to support the cause by speaking in public aged eight. On 28 February 1913, a suffragist newspaper reported the boy’s fervent words: “Some people say that the men are more clever than the women, and stronger and bigger. But you can just tell them that they are not right, for some women are even bigger than the men – like my mother – and cleverer too.”

His father pursued a series of precarious, not unsuccessful enterprises. “He reads the Times all day and sleeps in Mummy’s bed all night,” the young Tippett boys said, when asked.

Soden is perceptive in unravelling Tippett’s tortured but warm personality. He couldn’t bear trouble. When a relationship with a younger man foundered because the man had taken up with not one but two women, Tippett took them all on holiday. When another lover returned to his ex-wife (there are many men, each logged here, their sleeping arrangements and covert liaisons assessed), Tippett’s response was: “Wonderful for them all.”

I met Tippett, too briefly, in his final years. Tall, stooping, bright blue eyes weak from macular degeneration but still piercing, he embodied charm. He wore bright clothes, and his laugh was a boyish giggle. Soden (born in 1990), who inherited the task of writing this first full life from the late Dennis Marks (ex-BBC and English National Opera), was too young to have known Tippett. He makes up for that loss with sleuth-like questing, talking to those who remember him, using imagination to bring alive Tippett’s Edwardian childhood, his 1930s Trotskyist youth, midlife as an impoverished prep-school teacher, delayed fame, a late surge of creativity. Soden’s sense of adventure endears: he even gets to commune with Tippett’s ashes. As he says, in the writing of this book: “I have lived his life, more, it sometimes felt, than my own.”

His preoccupation is with the man. Sometimes, the human detail is so full you miss the not insignificant fact that Tippett has just completed an opera or symphony. It’s an insoluble dilemma when writing about a composer.

Soden states in his preface that the book is a “life”, not a “life-n-works”. There is no technical analysis. “I invite musicologists and performers to go on from here.” Thus Soden lets himself off the hook on which his critics might hang him. This gap will trouble some, relieve others, if only because an already monumental book would have been twice the length. As a panoramic view of an artistic, political, sexual and social life in the past century, it omits nothing.

• Michael Tippett: The Biography by Oliver Soden is published by Orion (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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