Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998), one of the most original and important British composers of the twentieth century, lived in Tidebrook during the nineteen fifties and during this period he composed some of the major works that established his reputation. He also composed several minor works of more local interest, including a hymn tune entitled “Wadhurst”.
Tippett was a late developer as a composer and for many years was regarded as something of an outsider. During the war he was a conscientious objector and in 1943, he appeared before a tribunal for failing to comply with the conditions of his exemption from war service. At this tribunal the then presiding genius of British music, Ralph Vaughan Williams, although fundamentally disagreeing with Tippett’s stance, appeared as a character witness stating that his work “was a distinctive national asset to increase the prestige of this country in the world”. Despite this impressive testimonial, Tippett was sentenced to three months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs and it was to be well over twenty years before Vaughan Williams’s prophesy was realised.
At the time of his imprisonment Tippett was living in Oxted where, since 1929, he had been eking out a frugal living from a variety of teaching jobs and work with amateur choirs. Although this was giving him time to compose, his financial situation had become increasingly precarious and in 1940 he accepted the Directorship of Morley College in South London – an institution in which he had taught intermittently during the 1930’s. His success as a composer had been limited and at that time only his Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939) had made an impression with the wider public.
After ten years at Morley College, during which he composed his first symphony, his second and third string quartets and several song cycles, he gave up work to devote all his energies to full time composition. Several factors influenced this decision. One was the success of his wartime oratorio “A Child of Our Time”, premiered shortly after his release from prison (and still one of his most performed works), which had reinforced his self confidence as a composer. Another was his deep immersion in the composition of his magnum opus, the opera, “The Midsummer Marriage”. He had started this in 1946 but progress had been slow and by the end of the decade he had managed to complete only two of the three acts. The strain of coping with the conflicting demands on his time had begun to affect his health adversely and he had suffered a severe bout of hepatitis. He therefore sought a location where he could work in relative seclusion and concentrate on the composition of the third act of his opera without too many distractions. The place he chose was Tidebrook Manor.
Tippett at Tidebrook
Tippett acquired Tidebrook Manor in 1951 with financial assistance from his widowed mother. The previous occupier of this large house had been the Canadian Army and when Tippet took it over it was in a very dilapidated state. In a letter to his fellow composer Benjamin Britten, Tippett described “an old manor with an ugly Victorian frontage – imposing indeed”. He also mentioned that it had no electricity and that the roof in the Georgian part of the house leaked. Urging Britten to visit him there, he commented that it had “a most lovely room to sing and play in and it’s tranquillity itself , besides being very lovely in situation”.
Joining him in his new home were his mother, his then partner, the painter Karl Hawker, and the wife and three boys of a young cockney conscientious objector whom Tippett had befriended at a tribunal several years earlier. This family dealt with the main domestic tasks such as cooking and cleaning. To help offset living expenses and the cost of the necessary improvements to the house, Tippett let out 40 acres of pastures to the manor farm behind the house and explored the possibilities of forestry.
This curious ménage was not without its tensions. In her youth Mrs Tippett had been imprisoned as a suffragette and, like her son, was uncompromising in her beliefs and opinions. The life styles of Tippett and his mother proved to be incompatible and eventually both found sharing a house a severe trial. Mrs Tippett favoured keeping windows open night and day and was oblivious both to the cold and to the assorted fauna that entered the house as a consequence. In contrast, Tippett preferred hermetically sealed rooms and roaring fires. Whereas Mrs Tippett kept her part of the garden fastidiously well tended, her son was content to let his part run wild – much to her annoyance. Tippett enjoyed a varied diet but his mother was a long standing vegetarian. Mrs Tippett had several other eccentricities. She was a devotee of faith healing and also had the alarming habit of lacing the household’s meals with laxatives – even when there were guests!
A further source of tension was Tippett’s homosexual relationship with Karl Hawker, of which his mother strongly disapproved. Hawker was a somewhat tormented individual, both confused about his sexuality and worried that his relationship with Tippett was stifling his creativity as a painter. Mrs Tippett found his neurotic behaviour increasingly difficult to take and matters were exacerbated when the cockney family insinuated that it was aware of the (then illegal) nature of the relationship between Hawker and Tippett and hinted at blackmail. The family was asked to leave and they were replaced by a German ex-prisoner of war, known as Zeppe, and his wife and son. Zeppe worked at the adjoining farm and also assisted Tippett in his attempts at forestry. On one occasion their inexpert efforts at tree felling resulted in the road to Mayfield being blocked for several hours. Unfortunately Zeppe’s marriage soon ran into difficulties and his wife left him to go off and live in a caravan.
One might have expected that such a highly charged emotional atmosphere would prove inimical to the sustained concentration required for composition. However, although on the surface an affable and warm character, Tippett was unashamedly self-centred and had a ruthless single mindedness and ambition as far as his creative work was concerned and his years at Tidebrook proved highly productive. He completed “The Midsummer Marriage” in 1952 and this was followed by the Fantasia Concertante on a theme by Corelli for strings (1953), the Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’ for chamber orchestra (1954) and the Piano Concerto (1955). In 1957 Tippett completed his Second Symphony and, in 1958, embarked on his second opera, “King Priam” – a commission for the celebrations surrounding the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. This he completed in 1961.
In 1959 Tippett was awarded a CBE but he was still regarded as a somewhat controversial figure. Although his music was richly textured and full of effervescent melody, many considered it to be ungratefully written for voices and instruments and to make excessive technical demands in performance. These technical demands caused numerous problems during the 1950s, often resulting in inadequate performances that failed to do full justice to the music. For example, Sir Malcolm Sargent withdrew from the first performance of the Corelli fantasia because he thought it “overburdened with notes”; the first performance of the second symphony came to grief because of a dispute with the leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra; and the distinguished pianist appointed to give the premiere of the piano concerto declared it to be unplayable and had to be replaced at the eleventh hour.
However, the work that ran into the greatest difficulties was “The Midsummer Marriage”. Like Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, it is a “quest opera” in which the central theme is a young couple’s self discovery and purification through mysterious supernatural experiences. The basic plot is simple : a quarrel between an engaged couple and their final reconciliation. However, the presentation of these events is very far from simple and the opera runs for nearly three hours. Tippett had an exceptional breadth of literary, philosophical and political interests and the libretto of the opera – which he wrote himself – drew upon on an extraordinary range of elements including the works of Shaw and T.S Eliot; Arthurian legend; Hindu philosophy; Christian theology; the Greek myths and, most importantly, Jungian psychology. When the opera was premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in January 1955, many, including the cast (which included the young Joan Sutherland), confessed themselves baffled. Predictably, most of the press greeted the opera with a barrage of jeering incomprehension. Most reviews, although commenting favourably on the quality of the music, nevertheless condemned the opera for its obscurity. Only a few of the more perceptive commentators realised that Tippett had created a unique vision and, moreover, had clothed it with music of remarkable originality splendour and richness. Sadly, however, the prevailing view at that time was that the opera was likely destined for oblivion.
The hymn tune “Wadhurst”
Although Tippett devoted most of his time at Tidebrook to the creation of large scale works , he also found time to write some smaller pieces in response to specific commissions. One example was a unison song, to words by Shelley, for voices strings ands piano written for the jubilee of the East Sussex and West Kent Choral Festival and premiered in the Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells in 1960. Another was a hymn tune, “Wadhurst”, written for the Salvation Army. In contrast to most of Tippett’s works, which have been widely performed and recorded, this hymn tune appears to have almost totally neglected – even in the town that bears its name.
Unlike his contemporaries Benjamin Britten, Lennox Berkeley and William Walton, Tippett was not a noted composer of church music and he was not a conventional Christian believer. Nevertheless, he had a strong mystical streak and, while not adhering to any particular faith, embraced a form of personal pantheism which asserted the value and beauty of life. His sole significant contribution to church music was a striking setting of the evening canticles written for the 450th anniversary of St John’s College, Cambridge in 1961. It is therefore somewhat surprising to find him writing a hymn tune – indeed judging by a letter from the composer to his publisher he was somewhat surprised himself! How did it come about?
During his years at Tidebrook, Tippett was a regular customer of a fish shop in Wadhurst. The proprietor of this fish shop, which was located in the High Street on the site of the present Hair Workshop, was George Mallion. In addition to being a popular purveyor of fish and poultry, Mr Mallion was the admired bandmaster of the then Wadhurst Corps of the Salvation Army. Every Christmas he was in the habit of taking his band carolling “by appointment” to the homes of some his customers. These expeditions generally ended at Tidebrook Manor where Tippett laid on seasonal refreshments. Memories of one such occasion was published in The Salvationist shortly after Tippett’s death. Apparently the band would first play outside and then be invited to play inside the hallway with Tippett (who declined the offer to conduct) listening at a safe distance at the top of the stairs where he claimed he heard the band to best effect.
Later, over coffee and mince pies in the drawing room, guests and host discussed their favourite carols. Tippett nominated “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” with music by his friend and colleague from his early Morley College days, Gustav Holst. Despite his lack of belief, Tippett had always been moved by the beauty of traditional hymn tunes and, when Mallion broached the question as to whether he would consider writing a hymn for the Salvation Army, he agreed. Subsequently he accepted a commission to provide a straightforward four-part congregational hymn to be supported by band. According to the composer’s correspondence, the agreement dated from 1954.
At first he intended to write a descant to the tune “French” from the Scottish Psalter of 1615 to accompany the words of the metrical psalm 121 “I to the hills will lift mine eyes”. However, on further investigation he found the rhythms of this text too evenly grouped for his purposes and chose instead to set an alternative version of psalm 121 (“Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes”) written by John Douglas Sutherland Campbell (1845-1914) in 1877. A tune for this hymn was already in existence. It was composed by Charles H. Purday (1799-1885), the conductor of psalmody at Crown Court Scots Church in Covent Garden, London, and a fine vocalist who had sung at the coronation of Queen Victoria. His tune, known as “Sandon”, was also used for the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light”. Tippett wrote a new tune of his own but retained the Scottish melodic style of the original.
Tippett clearly took the commission seriously and, according to Professor Ian Kemp, a leading authority on Tippett’s music, the result was a wholly characteristic piece. However, “straightforward” is an adjective that has been rarely applied to Tippett’s music and one suspects that the hymn proved to be too sophisticated for its original purpose. In his short analysis Kemp refers to “patterns of expanded and irregular phrase lengths” and “a harmonic progression … so that repeated verses flow round in a harmonic circle and do not mechanically stop and start as with most hymn tunes”. He concluded wryly that “such scrupulous professionalism did not guarantee an important contribution to British hymnody”.
Tippett’s tune, christened “Wadhurst”, was published in the July-August 1958 issue of The Musical Salvationist and the original pencil written score now resides in the British Library in the Tippett collection of manuscripts (Volume xxxiii). The performance history still needs to be researched in more detail but, judging from a preliminary investigation, the tune does not appear to have been used to any significant extent. For example, I was unable to find references to Tippett’s tune for “Unto the Hills” in any of the major hymn databases consulted on the internet. In all cases it was Purday’s tune “Sandon” that was cited.
Departure from Tidebrook
In 1960 Tippett decided to leave the relative isolation of Tidebrook and moved (this time without his mother!) to a Georgian house in the High Street of Corsham, a small country town in Wiltshire. This move coincided with a major upturn in his fortunes and it was during the 1960s that he started to receive wide public recognition.
The first performance of “King Priam”, an opera with a far less complex plot than its predecessor, proved a critical triumph and led to many more commissions for new works. As the decade proceeded, a new generation of performers more in sympathy with the idiom of Tippett’s music and less daunted by its technical demands started to champion its cause. In particular, the conductor Sir Colin Davis emerged as a major interpreter of Tippett’s works and in 1968 conducted a new production of “The Midsummer Marriage” at Covent Garden. This proved to be a revelation and, instead of the denigration that greeted its first performance, the work was widely hailed as a work of genius and a musical masterpiece. One critic went so far as to say that it was one of the most supreme orchestral achievements by an English composer in the 20th or any other century. A best-selling recording followed. Since then the opera has received many productions worldwide, the most recent revival being by the Royal Opera House in 2005.
Several other of Tippett’s Tidebrook works underwent a similar rehabilitation. For example, the pianist John Ogdon made light of the difficulties of the piano concerto and revealed it to be the romantic and lyrical work that Tippett always intended it to be. He performed it with great success at the Proms under the composer’s direction and on a recording with Colin Davis. The Corelli Fantasia, once rejected by Sargent, was introduced to a wider audience by its use by the director Peter Hall in his film “Akenfield” and became one of Tippett’s most popular and oft recorded works.
During the last three decades of his life Tippett’s success and reputation grew. He was knighted in 1966, was appointed Companion of Honour in 1979 and to the Order of Merit in 1983. He continued to compose a steady stream of major works including a further two symphonies, three piano sonatas, a triple concerto, three more operas and two large scale choral works including “The Vision of St Augustine”. His last work, the orchestral tone poem “The Rose Lake” was completed in 1993 and he died at the age of 93 in 1998.
Paradoxically, as Tippett’s fame and reputation grew his style became noticeably
more astringent and his work became more vulnerable to charges of pretentiousness.
In old age he remained astonishingly youthful both in appearance and outlook
and he was greatly flattered to become somewhat of a cult figure, particularly
in the US. The downside of this was that, in his eagerness to communicate
to the modern generation and to remain “a man of his time” he was sometimes
tempted to adopt a distressing trendiness of expression, by , for example,
incorporating contemporary slang and street argot in his librettos. Consequently
his later operas such as “The Ice Break” and “New Year” and his last major
choral work “The Mask of Time”, although containing much fine music, are
marred by what one critic described aptly, but somewhat unkindly, as “an
R.D. Langian, groovy-baby psycho-muddle which the passage of time may merely
In the years following his death it is becoming apparent that many of the later works in which he strove rather too hard for “relevance” are unlikely to stand the test of time and that it will be the musically rich and exuberantly lyrical works that he wrote before and during his Tidebrook years that are most likely to endure. Sadly, however, unless someone attempts a resuscitation, his hymn tune “Wadhurst” is unlikely to be among them.
As a postscript, it is interesting to note that there two other composers associated with the Wadhurst area who were rather more successful at hymn writing than Tippett. One of the greatest of Victorian hymn composers, John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876), died at Ticehurst House at the early age of 53, following a breakdown due to stress and overwork. Many of his 300 plus hymns are still in frequent use today including "Nicaea" (“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty), "Vox Dilecti" ("I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say"), "Alford" ("Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand"), "Dominus Regit Me" ("The King of Love my Shepherd is"), and "Melita" ("Eternal Father, Strong to Save"). Another noted Victorian hymn writer, Francis Pott (1832-1909) served as a curate at Ticehurst from 1861-1866 and while there composed several well known hymns including “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done”. Arthur Dewar
Meirion Bowen: “Michel Tippett” Robson Books (1997)
Ian Kemp: “Tippett – The Composer and His Music” Eulenburg Books (1984)
Gerald Norris: “A Musical Gazetteer of Great Britain And Ireland” David And Charles (1981)
Thomas Schuttenhelm (editor): “Selected Letters of Michael Tippett” Faber and Faber (2005)
Michael Tippett: “Those Twentieth Century Blues” Hutchinson (1991)
George Twitchen: “Sir Michael and the Army”. The Salvationist 31 January 1998