About this Recording
8.570497 - TIPPETT, M.: String Quartets, Vol. 2 - Nos. 3, 5 (Tippett Quartet)

Michael Tippett (1905–1998)
String Quartets • 2


Michael Tippett studied at the Royal College of Music with Charles Wood and later with R.O. Morris. His first acknowledged works appeared in his late thirties, for instance, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938–9). From 1940 to 1951 he was director of music at Morley College, where he mounted important revivals of early music such as Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. In 1943 he was imprisoned for his pacifist beliefs, and the following year his reputation as a leading British composer was established with the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939–41). His series of five operas, string quartets and piano sonatas, and four symphonies are major contributions to these genres. Just some of his characteristic masterpieces are the operas The Midsummer Marriage (1946–52) and King Priam (1958–61), the Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli (1953), the Piano Concerto (1953–55), Second Symphony (1956–57) and the choral The Mask of Time (1980–82). Many of Tippett’s compositions reflect the social, political and philosophical beliefs that he held. He was knighted in 1966 and composed into his vigorous old age, his later works including the scena Byzantium(1989–90) and the orchestral The Rose Lake (1991–93).

Tippett wrote that he was ‘invincibly drawn to the quartet medium’ when he heard performances by the Busch and Lener Quartets whilst a student in London. His first three quartets were composed between 1935 and 1946; in each he was preoccupied with form, although equally important was the profound influence of Beethoven, his challenge being to redefine Beethovenian forms in a meaningful twentieth-century compositional context. In the first two quartets Tippett developed his own version of Beethoven’s sonataallegro form, but in the Third (1945–6) he examined the combination of sonata and fugue that characterize the latter’s late piano sonatas and quartets. By this time he had also heard all Bartók’s quartets; consequently their influence can be felt too, for instance, in his decision to write a five-movement work as in the Fourth and Fifth Quartets. This creates a natural arch pattern, which entailed his considering a new weighting and balance between the movements. Thus the first, third and fifth movements are fast and fugal, while the intervening slow movements are described by him as ‘lyrics’. The Third Quartet was given its première on 19 October 1946 at the Wigmore Hall, London, by the Zorian Quartet. Tippett made a revision to the opening of the finale after the first performance: in 1975 he decided that the fourth and fifth movements should be played without a break.

The weighty slow introduction brings to mind Beethoven’s Op. 127 Quartet and creates the impression that this will be a work of substance. Thematically the rhythmic viola idea is transformed into the lithe fugue theme of the subsequent Allegro, its expansive character relating it to the fugue subject of the finale of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. It is introduced by the first violin unaccompanied, then repeated by the second violin, viola and cello in turn, with subsidiary fugal ideas appearing alongside. This is the first of three expositions, each of which becomes shorter as it returns, interspersed with three development sections that grow longer. Predominantly the music bounds with athletic energy, bringing en route two climaxes, although there is also a moment of repose when the introduction is recalled.

The tranquil song-like second movement is formed of two sections, in major and minor keys respectively. Each is preceded by an introduction, in which the cello’s pizzicato is like a serenading guitar, and this music returns to conclude the movement. During each part a serene, long-breathed pianissimo theme journeys from the highest to the lowest instruments (violins in the first; viola and cello in the second). Each time the theme soars to its climax Tippett creates a breathtaking moment of aural imagination, as the music seemingly sinks and sighs.

The third movement, a dazzling double fugue, is pivotal to the work acting in the overall scheme as a scherzo and trio. Virtuosic both as an exercise in contrapuntal writing and to perform, it has an exhilarating momentum and is bound together by a recurring, ritornello-like idea. The trio has a lyrical melody heard initially on the first violin, and later inverted on cello and viola.

‘Visionary’ is an apt description for the next movement, the most original of the quartet. In it three extended paragraphs, which begin in almost static calmness, with the instruments muted, swell to effulgent, ecstatic climaxes. In the first the cello leads the way, then the viola dominates, whilst in the last, the first violin extends the increasing complexity until in a whirlwind proliferation of notes, the music, without a break cascades into the last movement. This time the fugue is based around a chorale-like theme with a lilting rhythm. Described as ‘lyrical and gentle’ by Tippet, the music’s character is simpler than the previous fast movements and a quality of relaxed affirmation is defined, underpinned at the end by the cello’s pedalpoint as the music reaches its goal.

Although Tippett had intended to compose a fourth quartet soon after the third, the prolonged period writing his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, took him in a different direction and he did not return to the medium for over four decades. Then, in his Indian summer of composition during his eighties he composed his Fifth Quartet (1990–91). It received its première on 9 May 1992 at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, by its commissioners, the Lindsay Quartet, who from the 1970s had become closely associated with the composer’s quartets. Tippett’s final works are characterized by a return to the lyricism that marks his early music. Allied to this is a concentration of thought and texture so that the force of the musical invention may be in just one or two musical lines. The Fifth Quartet harks back to earlier preoccupations with dramatic sonata principles, as well as that same visionary element apparent in the fourth movement of the Third Quartet. It is cast in two movements, of which the second is longer.

The first movement combines the Beethovenian sonata dynamic with the block-like exploitation of material that is a feature of Tippett’s music from the late 1950s, in works such as the Concerto for Orchestra (1962–63). A swift succession of memorable ideas forms its building blocks: three forceful notes and a quiet response at the very opening, the latter extended contrapuntally; a chordal ‘clang’ with flourish and offbeat rhythmic unison; a ‘singing’ phrase first heard on the viola including a trill, set against resonating cello; a ‘crisp, crystalline’ flurry of fast notes; ‘ringing’, joyous bell-like chords; and a terse three note concluding gesture. Development, principally in the form of material being viewed from different vistas, follows, and includes an arresting passage of heterophony (the simultaneous variation of a single melody), where the melodic line (an adaptation of music from the opera New Year sung by the character Pelegrin in Act 1) played by violin and cello three octaves apart, is decorated by second violin and viola in the middle of the texture at an octave’s space. Gradually the development merges with a varied recapitulation until the fast music returns in its original guise.

As so often with Tippett, it is the concept of song and singing that is at the heart of the second movement and relates to the words that head the score: ‘Sing, nightingale, you with the heart so gay’. In an essay of 1945, The Composer’s Point of View, Tippett wrote that the ‘peculiar, liquid tone of their (the nightingales’) song can sound like someone sobbing from heartbreak, which makes us respond deep down inside’. Once again Beethoven provides the inspiration for the movement’s form, here the Hymn of Thanksgiving, from the Op. 132 Quartet which alternates slow and quick music.

Out of a spread dissonant chord from the lower strings, a melody gradually emerges for the first violin, as achingly poignant as the nightingale’s song. It ends with a downward, tender pattering phrase rounded off with a sighing glissando. This idea is taken up and developed during the movement to create perhaps the most haunting musical image of the work. After expansion the section concludes with a rocking, syncopated passage which subsides into a cadence, that seems so utterly English, and redolent with resonances of Purcell and the Tudor composers—those distinctive influences on the composer’s musical roots. Tippett now introduces faster music that he indicates as ‘light, delicately dancing’. Much use is made of canonical writing in music that is lean and spare, but also increasingly radiant. With each return of the slow music the mood turns more agitated, until once again the balm of the English cadence heals the anxiety. In the final section, music of rapt beauty leads to a glowing, final chord.

Andrew Burn

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