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We have waited too long for a sizeable life-and-works of a composer ‘among the most visionary of the 20th century’, as the press release advises us. This is a fair claim, but it would be equally fair to say that Tippett’s visionary sense was imperfectly realised in much of his music from the late seventies onwards. Soden’s book errs on the side of adulation. To set the bar high, I would cite some of the finest critics – V S Pritchett on literature, Derrick Puffett on music – who are clear-sighted, treasuring what is special or unique in their subject, while also facing up to the weaknesses. With Tippett’s compositions from his last 25 years one often has the sad but inescapable feeling that the music falls short of the ambitious intentions – his teeming brain lacking the necessary discipline or focus. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend it. Soden writes with a rare poetic quality and imagination – especially elusive qualities when one is describing music. On the first string quartet: ‘tricky and tricksy, the notes aligned like crazy paving: players and listeners snag themselves on quavers in unexpected places, before tumbling into oddly placed rests.’ I keenly anticipated Soden’s appraisal of Tippett’s later works. Many admirers would regard those years as a sad decline, with exceptional works such as The Rose Lake standing out.

Belatedly, as I began to think that Soden’s love for Tippett’s music might prove to be indiscriminate, he does (for instance, on p553) introduce necessary balance. Writing of Tippett in the late 1970s: ‘For some, though, the music confirmed that fame had not come without a price. David Matthews thinks that with acclaim came “a removal of self-doubt”. Alexander Goehr agreed: “He was totally uncritical of himself”.’

Tippett the conductor was typically charismatic (though his technique deteriorated when his sight began to fail), generally endearing himself to adults or youngsters with his often childlike exuberance and ability to engage equally with all types and cultures. His advocacy of Monteverdi and Purcell should not be forgotten.

On Tippett the man, with all his various idiosyncracies, Soden is frank, not shirking what for many readers may be distasteful. Tippett himself was often disarmingly honest about his predilections. The author traces his life, from a sadistic school environment, through Trotskyite convictions, pacifism (he spent three months in Wormwood Scrubs for conscientious objection) and eventual celebrity status. His tv appearances alone (from Terry Wogan’s chat show to Channel 4 analysis) are enough to remind us just how low classical music coverage has sunk. Soden remarks: ‘The equivalent example today would be for Harrison Birtwistle to be invited on to The Graham Norton Show.’

At the end of each group of chapters, Soden inserts a few pages of diary. In these he visits places which have close associations with Tippett, musing and reflecting. There are no music examples, many excellent photographs and scarcely any typos, but I should mention ‘Klu Klux Klan’ (twice), and ‘on the wain’ (p204). Finally, I am not sure that Soden’s expansive and subjective epilogue improves the book.

Philip Borg-Wheeler Read the full review on Agora Classica


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