The output of English composer and conductor Michael Kemp Tippett reveals in retrospect a majestic progression of five operas interspersed with five string quartets and four each of piano sonatas, concertos and symphonies. Although a late developer musically, he created a highly individual neoclassical style, drawing on rhythmic techniqes found in English Renaissance music and in Stravinsky, and strongly influenced by his admiration for Beethoven's music and for jazz, particularly the blues. His initial visit to the United States in 1965, a liberating experience, led to his first American commission, the Fourth Symphony, which was given its world premiere in Chicago in 1977. Subsequent American world premieres have included the first performances of The Mask of Time (Boston), the Fourth Piano Sonata (Los Angeles) and the opera, New Year (Houston). Among official honours Tippett received several doctorates as well as a knighthood (1966) and the Order of Merit (1983).
Born in London, the son of an entrepreneur of Cornish stock, Tippett had little formal musical instruction while at school except piano lessons, but by the time he left, he had made up his mind to become a composer. Following a period of study at the Royal College of Music, London (1923-8), with Charles Wood and then Charles Kitson as composition teachers (the latter uncongenial), as well as help with conducting from Adrian Boult and Malcolm Sargent, Tippett settled in Oxted, Surrey, teaching French part-time. There he gained much useful practical experience from local music making, conducting a choir and staging operas, but a concert of his own music in 1930 demonstrated the need for further instruction, which he received from R. O. Morris (1930-2). In 1933 he was invited to conduct the South London (Morley College) Orchestra for professional unemployed musicians, and he subsequently became the Director of Music at Morley College, serving from 1940 to 1951. His pacifist convictions were put to the test during the Second World War when, as a registered conscientious objector, he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment. Following the war he could devote himself more fully to composition, although he acted as the Musical Director of the Bath Festival for a five-year period (1969-74). In 1951 he left Oxted, subsequently living in the West Country.