Tippett: Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage

Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage

BORN: January 2, 1905. London, England
DIED: January 8, 1998. London

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERES: Tippett composed his opera The Midsummer Marriage from 1946 through 1952, and it was premiered on January 27, 1955, at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London. By that time, Tippett had extracted and slightly modified excerpts from the opera as a concert work—Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage—and they had already been premiered on February 13, 1953, with Paul Sacher conducting the Basel Chamber Orchestra at the Musiksaal in Basel, Switzerland. The Ritual Dances are dedicated to the conductor Walter Goehr

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—October 1991. Roger Norrington conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (doubling piccolos), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, gong, bass drum, harp, celesta, and strings. Optional parts for vocal soloists and chorus are not used in this performance

DURATION: About 25 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Michael Tippett came late to composition, but once he entered the Royal College of Music, in 1923, he embarked on a hard-won path of musical training that continued for nearly a decade. It has been said that Tippett became a composer out of sheer doggedness rather than as the inevitable result of innate talent; if this is so, he offers a convincing case that such a route to creative excellence is possible, if unusual. He remained productive to the end of his long life, and his catalogue reveals a musical mind that was anything but static, drawing from a constantly renewed font of inspirations and intellectual predilections.

He had several impediments to establishing a career. During the mid-1930s he had a brief fling with the British Communist Party, and, along with his homosexuality and his unwavering stance as a pacifist, this made him persona non grata in official circles. Not until the years following World War II, when Tippett was firmly middle-aged, did his works begin to receive prominent performances. The catalyst was the 1944 premiere of his oratorio A Child of Our Time, a disturbing piece that takes as its point of departure the assassination of a Nazi official by a Jewish dissident in 1938, an act to which the Nazis responded with the shattering events of Kristallnacht. 

Tippett’s grasp of earlier music was encyclopedic, and his compositions often grappled with the challenges of subsuming the musical ideas of historical composers into an essentially modernist, if sometimes conservative, language—one that was also open to influence from the blues and from African-American spirituals. As his career progressed, this tendency increasingly extended to a personalizing of contemporary techniques proposed by such diverse figures as Britten and Boulez, as well as to considering modern psychological, philosophical, and scientific thinking.

Although Tippett composed nine musical stage works in the course of his career, the first four are minor pieces that did not aspire to full operatic stature: a ballad opera, a folksong opera, and two musical plays for children. His breakthrough to the operatic stage came with his three-act The Midsummer Marriage, which occupied him from 1946 to 1952 and received its first production at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in January 1955. For this initial effort in grand opera, Tippett drew on concepts and imagery he had grasped while undergoing Jungian self-analysis in 1938-39. He had already articulated his basic idea in a motto he articulated in connection with A Child of Our Time: “I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole.”

The complex symbolism of The Midsummer Marriage proved mystifying to many of the first operagoers who encountered it. Many critics dismissed it—in the Daily Telegraph Martin Cooper described it as “an extraordinary jumble of verbal images and stage mumbo-jumbo—but most found themselves nonetheless admiring the music in its own right. The eminent Ernest Newman’s review of the opera in the Sunday Times observed that “there is so much first-rate music in it that it is painful to contemplate the possibility of it not becoming a success.”

THE MUSIC In The Midsummer Marriage, the shadow and light of behavior and personality prove to be mutable matters. The action (which shares some common ground with Mozart’s Die Zauberflรถte) centers on a young couple, Mark and Jenifer, who plan to elope. He is a gentle and generous soul, innately in touch with nature. She is the unfeeling, domineering daughter of a businessman who opposes their relationship; and the father’s opposition seems to have swayed her, since she decides that she wants to postpone the planned nuptials. Tippett described a vision that served as his point of departure:

I saw a large stage picture (as opposed to hearing a musical sound) of a wooded hilltop with a temple, where a warm and soft young man was being rebuffed by a cold and hard young woman … to such a degree that the collective, magical archetypes take charge—Jung’s anima and animus—the girl, inflated by the latter, rises through the stage flies to heaven, and the man, overwhelmed by the former, descends through the stage floor to hell. But it was clear they would soon return.

That vision precisely traces action that gets the opera rolling: upon meeting in a mystical temple where they were to be married, Jenifer ascends some steps and disappears upward, in response to which Mark descends stairs, as if to hell. Plot strands involving other characters begin to unroll, but, surprisingly, the lovers return from their separate paths and reveal themselves to have been transformed, Jenifer achieving heightened spirituality, Mark gaining a more practical appreciation for mortal concerns. Off they go again, still separately, now in the opposite directions they had explored initially. By Act III, the couple, both greatly transformed, find common ground in their love. Their union is celebrated through a dance ritual, “Fire in Summer (The Voluntary Human Sacrifice),” in which a gigantic lotus closes into a bud around them and then bursts into flame, symbolizing the confluence of carnal and divine love that enables Jenifer and Mark to proceed to their marriage. 

This is the last of four dance rituals observed in the opera. The other three take place earlier, in Act II. Neither Jenifer nor Mark are present for those three, being occupied exploring their separate pathways, but the dance rituals provide context by portraying, with pictorial specificity, three threatening aspects of the balance of power and relationships from a Jungian symbolic perspective involving animal transformations. Each of these first three Ritual Dances is anchored through the use of ground basses, repeating foundational melodies over which the music is developed with considerable sense of rhapsody. In “The Earth in Autumn,” a hound chases a hare, which escapes without difficulty. A scurrying flute suggests the scampering at first, but brasses inject an ominous tone and the music grows increasingly harried before dying away into a sustained horn tone.

This connects without a break to “The Waters in Winter.” Here an otter chases a fish, which wriggles away, but just barely. The music of this aquatic section “grows from its slow, murky opening towards a cadenza for two clarinets” (to quote the Tippett biographer Meirion Brown). As the section ends we are left unsure of how this particular chase will end.

The music transforms into “The Air in Spring” by way of a fluttering, preparatory passage with an antique flavor. In this section, a hawk chases a smaller bird with a broken wing. The music of the two birds is clearly differentiated, with the hawk hovering in dense orchestral textures and the little bird chirping brightly. Things are not looking good for the small bird, but the seemingly predictable result remains inconclusive when the ecstatic spell of the dancers is broken before their enactment reaches its end.

The Swiss philanthropist and conductor Paul Sacher suggested that Tippett turn the four Ritual Dances—the three from Act II plus the final one, from Act III—into a concert suite. This Tippett did, tightening the pieces from their original form, massaging the transitions between them, and surrounding the whole with a prelude (it builds in grandeur and just as quickly recedes) and a shimmering postlude.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Teldec)  |  Richard Hickox conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Chandos)  |  Michael Tippett conducting the English Northern Philharmonic (Nimbus)  |  Listeners interested in hearing the complete opera may turn to the recording conducted by Colin Davis, with the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, supporting a distinguished mostly British cast (Lyrita)

Reading: Tippett: The Composer and his Music, by Ian Kemp (Eulenberg Books/Da Capo Press)  |  Michael Tippett, by Meirion Bowen (Robson Books)  |  The Music of Britten & Tippett: Studies in Themes and Techniques, by Arnold Whittall (Cambridge University Press)  |  Those Twentieth Century Blues: An Autobiography, by Michael Tippett (Pimlico)

(March 2018)