W a s h i n g t o n P u b l i c R a d i o
Music Review and Commentary by Tom Manoff for WPR
Does a musical work have to be a masterpiece to be historically important ? I think not. Consider the music of English composer Michael Tippett. Although gifted, Tippett never reached the level of the great masters, yet with honest hands he wrote music uniquely telling and compassionate. Tipett’s most famous work –Child of Our Time — is a flawed piece, even second rate. But the peformance I heard from Mathew Halls at the Oregon Bach Festival was transcendent.
Perhaps the best door to Tippett’s world are his words:
I have been writing music for forty years. During those years there have been huge and world-shattering events in which I have been inevitably caught up. Whether society has felt music valuable or needful I have gone on writing because I must. And I know that my true function within a society which embraces all of us, is to continue a tradition, fundamental to our civilization, which goes back into pre-history and will go forward into the unknown future. This tradition is to create images from the depths of the imagination and to give them form whether visual, intellectual or musical. For it is only through images that the inner world communicates at all. Images of the past, shapes of the future. Images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty.
What a pure soul was Michael Tippett ! Tender heart, truthful heart, a mind alive with the challenge of art in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams.
The performance was first rate. Most importantly Halls and his players and singers captured Tippett’s pure musical sensibility – nothing out of place, nothing over the top. The written score came forth unadorned by emotioanl excess. Really, this is quite important with a flawed work. The conductor was wise to resist “milking” the work for effect. That would have moved the musical experience into a rather banal region. Halls knows that the piece “is what it is,” and that Tippett’s work is characterized by a distinct classicism which suggests “play what is here, that is what I have written and that is enough.”
But I believe there was stylistic excess or at least stylistic miscalculation in the composer’s conception. Tippett’s oratorio is English classical music but also includes American Black Spirituals as the core of its musical being. It works for some, but not for me. Yes, there are moments when the spirituals allow the music to touch something Godly, but it doesn’t work for me. The combination isn’t stylistic pastiche but political pastiche. Said another way, the genesis of TIppett’s inclusion of American Black Music was not musical it was political.
Tippett’s use of what we once called Negro Spirituals struck me as musical blackface. Indeed, I only had to imagine Spike Lee sitting next to me in the audience. If you know Spike’s movies you know that he chooses music carefully. I’m betting that Spike’s Brooklyn Street Sense wouldn’t put up with an Englishman’sappropriation of music by Black Folks. If you’ve seen Spike’s Bamboozled, you know what I mean. The extent to which that works (it works for some ears, I find it misguided and stylistically jarring) promotes the various levels of negative to positive response.
Part Two is coming. Thanks.