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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Composer Tippett Was Late Bloomer




LONDON -- After a creative false start and a barrage of incomprehension from bewildered conductors, let alone audiences, Michael Tippett, who died Thursday, became one of the century's musical giants.


Born in January 1905 in London of Cornish stock, Tippett was, as he later confessed, a lonely and withdrawn youth.


At the age of 18, he entered the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition under Charles Wood and conducting under Adrian Boult and Malcolm Sargent.


His career was not meteoric. Discarding his early endeavors, in 1930 he decided to go back to college for further tuition and it was not until 1935 that he produced a work he deemed sufficiently mature to deserve inclusion in the canon of his works.


Later he would exhibit no false modesty.


An article in Britain's Observer newspaper for his 85th birthday observed that if Tippett were complimented on a particular passage, his likely reaction would be: "Yes, love, it's marvelous isn't it."


The same article also commented on "his boyish, zany personal style, responsive to all, respectful to no one," adding that he loved marmalade and wore trendy shoes.


Crucial to Tippett's acceptance -- and perhaps self-acceptance -- was finding conductors who understood his music. Now there is a host, notably, the chief conductor at the BBC Symphony and Glyndebourne, Andrew Davis.


Public opinion also swung round. One emotional promenader said, after the British premiere of Tippett's "The Mask of Time," that the composer was "a dreamer of extraordinary dreams."


Just before World War II, Tippett decided he wanted to write a protest against the horrors of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.


His resulting oratorio "A Child of Our Time" was inspired by a real incident in which a Jewish boy killed a Nazi diplomat.


Although written during the first two years of the war, the oratorio, which arguably remains Tippett's most accessible masterpiece, had to wait until March 1944 for its first performance.


Meanwhile, Tippett was briefly imprisoned during the war as a conscientious objector. Musically, he suffered because his idiom -- characterized by sprung rhythm and polyphonic exuberance -- was unfamiliar.