Between Englishness and modernism: the critical reception of Tippett’s operas

Hewett, I. (2020) Between Englishness and modernism: the critical reception of Tippett’s operas. Journal of Music Criticism, 4. pp. 1-28. ISSN 2532-9995 (online)

Abstract

This article is rooted in two large areas of debate, both of particular relevance at this culturally fraught moment. One is the way the work of many twentieth-century composers reveals an interesting and complex interaction between modern (or modernist) elements, and national (or nationalist) elements. The second is the contested nature of Englishness in the decades since the Second World War. Both themes come together in a peculiarly telling and fascinating way in the operas of Michael Tippett. The status of Tippett as an essentially English composer is itself contested, with some preferring to align him with European modernist trends. His operas can be read as revivals of English archetypes such as the masque and the pastoral but are also self-consciously universalist in their projection of ‘archetypal’ figures. The tension between these aspects is to a degree obscured in the works themselves, but it comes into sharp focus in the responses of critics, which are as fascinating as the works themselves. This article focuses on the critical response to Tippett’s operas during the decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, mostly in the British broadsheet press but with side-glances at continental (particularly German) responses, and at special-interest (but not academic) journals. Its conclusion is that English writers were caught in the toils of an irreconcilable tension. They wanted to put forward a specifically English riposte to continental modernism, and seized on Michael Tippett’s operas as the answer to that powerful need. His ecstatic lyricism and appeal to undefinable archetypes promised a different route to the objectivity and universalism that were modernism’s defining features. This manoeuvre now seems very much of its time. It is a response to a tension within English intellectual and cultural life, as were the operas themselves.

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