Sir Michael Tippett was born in London in 1905 and spent his childhood in Suffolk, making little contact with music until his teens.Thereafter he studied at the Royal College of Music, taking advantage of London concert life to equip himself for his future career. After leaving the RCM in 1928, Tippett lived in Oxted, Surrey; here he taught French in a preparatory school and conducted a local concert and operatic society, while continuing both to compose and to study with RO Morris. These lessons proved formative: he developed special skills in counterpoint which propelled him towards the first works of his creative maturity, his String Quartet No.1 (1935, revised 1944) and Piano Sonata No.1 (1936-7).
From his student days onwards, Tippett responded deeply to world events - the First World War, the Depression and mass unemployment - and became involved in political radicalism; at the same time his aesthetic ideas had crystallised in the course of several informal encounters with TS Eliot. The outcome of all this was the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939-41), an impassioned protest against persecution and tyranny and now his most widely performed composition.
Tippett became musical director of Morley College in 1940 and remained there until 1951, giving it a new lease of musical life: the college became the focal point of the Purcell revival, as well as championing new music and upcoming artists like Alfred Deller, Peter Pears and the Amadeus Quartet. Meanwhile, in 1943, he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for refusing, as a pacifist, to comply with conditions of exemption from active war service; he remained committed to the pacifist cause.
After leaving Morley College, Tippett devoted himself almost entirely to composition, earning a small secondary income from radio talks. He completed his First Symphony in 1945 and then embarked on his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage; like his next three operas, it was first produced by the Royal Opera House. They exerted a considerable influence upon his subsequent symphonies, sonatas, concertos and quartets.
Tippett's international reputation blossomed from his sixties onwards, partly through a proliferation of recordings of his music. His work is especially esteemed in America, and some of his most significant works (such as the Fourth Symphony and The Mask of Time) were US commissions. Tippett received many honours and awards; he was made a CBE in 1959, was knighted in 1966, became a Companion of Honour in 1979 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1983; he was also one of the recipients of the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
Throughout his eighties, Tippett remained exceptionally active, composing, conducting and travelling worldwide. His fifth opera, New Year, was commissioned jointly by Houston Grand Opera, Glyndebourne and the BBC, and received its première in 1989. Immediately after the opera came Byzantium, for soprano and orchestra.
Celebrations of Tippett's ninetieth birthday in 1995 included a month-long Tippett festival at the Barbican: this reached a climax with the world première of his last major composition, The Rose Lake, given by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis. Also in 1995, following upon his autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues (1991), there appeared his definitive collection of essays, Tippett on Music, and an idiosyncratic contribution to the Purcell tercentenary celebrations, Caliban's Song.
In November 1997 the Stockholm Concert Hall presented a 12-day Tippett Festival; Tippett travelled to Stockholm but was taken ill with pneumonia. Although he was able eventually to return to the UK, he never fully recovered and died peacefully at his home in South London on 8 January 1998.
(c) Meirion Bowen