Among the large archive of newspaper clippings from the 1950s collected by the late Patrick O’Donoghue , a former lecturer in English at the University of Manitoba, who ended up teaching in his adopted county of Norfolk, is a review of Richard Ellman’s The Identity of Yeats (1954) by the greatest British composer of the twentieth century, Sir Michael Tippett.
For a British composer to review a book about a poet is unusual to say the least. It is hard to imagine Edward Elgar reviewing a book about, say Tennyson, or Benjamin Britten, despite his association with George Crabbe, finding time in his busy schedule to seriously review a critical work on the Suffolk poet. But Tippett was no ordinary composer. According to his biographer Ian Kemp, Tippett developed a number of non-musical interests from an early age, from poetry and philosophy, spiritual development, and left wing politics. He published two books that had little to do with music. At one point in his life he became very interested in antique furniture and in 1951 moved to Tidebrook Manor, a crumbling mansion in Sussex. While teaching at a private school in Limpsfield, Surrey he bought some land and built a bungalow for himself on it. It was tiny (your Jotter has visited it) and badly designed, so perhaps architecture wasn’t his forte, but one can’t imagine Britten building a bungalow. It could be argued that all these non-musical activities may have distracted Tippett from wholeheartedly pursuing a career as a composer, for unlike the prodigy Britten, he was a notoriously late starter and destroyed all his early work. But there is something rather appealing in a composer interesting himself in a variety of disparate fields besides music, discovering at last what he was placed on this earth to do, while still retaining an interest in some of his earlier passions. In the case of Tippett, all these non-musical activities seemed to have informed his music.
We don’t exactly know how deeply Tippett was influenced by Yeats, but it is obvious in his review of Ellman’s book that he saw a correlation between Yeats’s views on symbolism in poetry and their application in music. Ellman contends that in his youth Yeats was affected
‘ by the practice of his contemporaries , among whom the rose then had the currency which the bone attained in English poetic symbolism during the 1920s ‘
‘ I am sure’, Tippett contends, that ‘ this could be paralleled in music, where certain chords and certain intervals dominate whole periods. Or ideas behind the images can span centuries.’
Yeats wanted tradition and the contemporary to be fused by a handing on of symbols. He held that “ we poets pass on age after age an artificial language inherited from the first poets and always full of reminiscent symbols, which grow richer in association every time they are used for new emotion “. So that it follows that Yeats was not easily interested by avant-garde fashion. And however colloquial Yeats’s late poetry became, it never allowed traditional symbols to be swamped by more journalistic images. Mr Ellman gives a fascinating list of Yeats’s later additions to his vocabulary, “ which (now) included ‘ grand-dad’, belly’, ‘bum’, ‘rod’ ,’ ‘swop’ , ‘ swish’, ‘punk’, ‘ bowels’, ‘randy’,’ beanfeast’, ‘codger’, ‘leching’, and ’ warty’. But these are still brought into vital proximity to traditional Irish and Greek imagery, to names like Cuchulain and Achilles.
It is clear that music cannot particularise images in this way .The “ artificial language “ of our music has been handed on , impoverished or enriched , for many fewer ages than belong to our poetry. Yet the sense of breeding, which is so powerful in Yeats, can certainly apply to the composer as to the poet. And Yeats would have found a great deal of avant-garde music distasteful. As Mr Ellman puts it, “His contempt is clear for the unremembering hearts and heads of the traditionless arrivistes who more and more dominate the world.”
With regard to all this it is illuminating to note that in his own music Tippett was not brazenly avant garde, as say, Schoenberg had been, but instead, while acknowledging the importance of atonalism, his early works were key-centered up to his Midsummer Marriage, thelibretto for which, incidentally, was described ( videYeats) by one critic as ‘ a complex network of verbal symbolism.’He preferred to build on a tradition of such sixteenth century composers as Orlando Gibbons, Monteverdi and Dowland, adding in the influence of Beethoven, Berlioz, Hindemith and Bartok, to which were added such ‘ colloquial ‘ elements, as negro spirituals, modern jazz, blues and folk song. In 1954, the date of his book review, he was already working on his Piano Concerto, which was arguably his most poetic of works and in which the piano symbolically ‘ sang’.